The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa


This story is told by a housekeeper, a Japanese single mother, who works for an agency that sends her to various households. Her latest assignment is the professor, who has a very high turnover in housekeepers. He's problematic because while he had been a brilliant mathematician, an accident left him with a short-term memory that lasts only 80 minutes. He has an excellent memory for anything that happened before 1975. He lives in a cottage on the estate of his widowed sister-in-law whose main rule for the housekeeper is that she is never to seek help from the sister-in-law.

The professor is unkempt with notes fluttering from his jacket to remind him of the most important facts. Each day the housekeeper arrives, he asks her birthdate, shoe size, and other similar questions and makes pronouncements about those numbers. She learns about the beauty of prime numbers and many other mathematical matters. It is the love of numbers that keeps the professor going.

When the professor learns she has a son, he is enthusiastic and insists the son come each day after school and helps him with math homework. The housekeeper tells us about her work in the professor's household, which involves cooking and cleaning for him, as well as an occasional outing to the barber, a major undertaking. She observed that the professor does not like carrots, so she works to get them into his diet surreptitiously, putting grated carrots in his hamburgers, for instance. 

The professor had never been to a baseball game, but had always loved the game for its abundance of numbers. He was especially fond of the pitcher Enatsu who wore that wonderful number, 28. Because the professor's memory ended in 1975, he assumes Enatsu is still on the team and the housekeeper and her son work to keep that fiction alive for the professor.

Their time together is appealing; it recounted with no huge revelations or changes in their situations. The housekeeper and her son remain loyal to the professor whose memory eventually shrinks to nothing. They continue to visit him when he is in an institution and the son has grown and become a teacher of mathematics.

Yoko Ogawa, The Housekeeper and the Professor, Picador, 2009, 192 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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