Yoko Ogawa: The Housekeeper and the Professor

by Rachel Baker on January 29, 2009

The Housekeeper and the Professor (Picador, February 3, 2009) is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read!  The prose of this book by Yoko Ogawa is so incredibly beautiful; I can’t help but want to read it in its original language of Japanese.  I can only imagine how exquisite this book would be in its original text. I’m almost inspired to try to learn the language.

Yoko Ogawa made mathematics alluring with this delightful book about a mathematics professor, his housekeeper and her ten year old son.  None of the characters have names, though the son has a nickname (Root), given by the professor.  Interestingly, the protagonist, in my opinion, is the Professors short term memory.  After a devastating accident, the professor only has 80 minutes of short term memory.  This means, every single morning, the Housekeeper has to re-introduce herself to the Professor before she can go into his house.  One would think there would be no way to build a relationship with this sort of setback. This book shows its possible. 

This charming story is about chosen family, relationships, mathematics and baseball (okay baseball is a small part of it, but I loved this added bonus). While reading this book, I was simply amazed at how enticing mathematics could be.

This passage is after the Professor’s explanation on abundant numbers and deficient numbers.

“I tried picturing 18 and 14, but now that I’d heard the Professor’s explanation, they were no longer simply numbers.  Eighteen secretly carried a heavy burden, while 14 fell mute on the face of its terrible lack.”

This passage is right after a long formula outlining how perfect numbers can be expressed as the sum of consecutive natural numbers.

“The Professor reached out to complete the long equation.  The numbers unfolded in a simple, straight line, polished and clean.  The subtle formula for the Artin conjecture and the plane line of factors for the number 28 blended seamlessly, surrounding us where we sat on the bench.  The figures became stitches in the elaborate pattern woven int he dirt.  I sat utterly still, afraid I migh accidently erase part of the design.  It seemed as though the secret of the universe had miraculously appeared right here at our feet, as though God’s notebook had opened under our bench.”

Several times during this book, I had to remind myself the Housekeeper was describing MATH… numbers and letters, functions and, well, other stuff that doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me when I’m sitting in a class with a math professor writing a bunch of stuff on the chalk board that may as well be greek.

But…Math is almost a sensual experience the way Ogawa has presented in this book!  AND… I even wrote out the math in the book when there was some explanation and then the formula.  HA!  Because I was curious!  I was actually astounded at how inspired I felt to really learn mathematics after reading this book.

And then there was this amazing gentle, quiet quality about the book:

“I was not surprised to find balles of hair and moldy Popsicle sticks behind the desk, or a chicken bone resting on top of one of his bookshelves.  And yet, the room was filled by a kind of stillness.  Not simply an absence of noise, but an accumulation of layers of silence, untouched by fallen hair or mold, silence that the Professor left behind as he wandered through the numbers, silence like a clear lake hidden in the depths of a forest.”


“When he had solved a contest problem from one of his journals and he making a clean copy to put in the mail, you could often hear him murmur, “How peaceful…” He seemed to be perfectly calm in these moments, as though everything were in its rightful place, with nothing left to add or subtract.  “Peaceful” was, to him, the highest compliment.
“…and if I were making dumplings, he would look on with something approaching wonder.  I would take a dumpling skin in the palm of my hand, spoon on a bit of filling, and then pinch up the edges before setting it on the platter.  A simple process, but he was completely absorbed by it, watching me until the last dumpling had been stuffed….
“When I was done at last and the dumplings were neatly arranged on the plate, he would fold his hands on the table and nod solemnly. “How peaceful…”

The Housekeeper and the Professor is a profound book about a developing relationship – one which is doomed from the start.  Everything the Housekeeper does has to be done with the understanding the Professor will only remember the last 80 minutes. The reader realizes toward the towards the end of the book, how incredible this relationship must have truly been – at least for the housekeeper and her son:

“He treated Root exactly as he treated prime numbers.  For him, primes were the base on which all other natural numbers relied; and children were the foundation of everything worthwhile in the adult world.
I still take out that note sometimes and study it.  On sleepless nights, or lonely evenings, when tears come to my eyes thinking about friends who are no longer here.  I bow my head in gratitude for that one line.”

The Housekeeper and the Professor is written by one of Japan’s most acclaimed authors. Since 1988 she has published more than twenty works of fiction and nonfiction, and she has won Japan’s most prestigious literary awards.  Stephen Snyder did the translation for this book from Japanese to English.  He teaches Japanese Literature at Middlebury College.  His translations include works by Kenzoburo Oe, Ryu Murakami, Natsuo Kirino, and Miri Yu.  [My apologies regarding the lack of character marks above some of the letters].

And I almost never talk about cover designs, but I want to give a huge “WOW! Excellent Job” to Henry Sene Yee.  On the fold of the front cover, there, in very fine print is the numbers that represent Pi taken out to 200 decimal places.

If you are interested in branching out into areas of world literature, I highly recommend this brilliant multi-layered story.  There are not enough synonyms for beautiful or peaceful to truly describe the delicate charm of this story.

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