This novel is a simple, deceptively elegant story about a housekeeper and one particular job she had. Assigned by her agency to a position that already had gone through a lot of housekeepers, the unnamed woman finds a situation unlike anything she might have expected. She is sent to work for a professor of mathematics who was in a car accident almost twenty years before and whose memory stopped then. His short term memory has been reduced to exactly eighty minutes.
Each day the housekeeper must reintroduce herself to the professor. The exchange the first day is typical. The professor asks: “What’s your shoe size?” She — unfazed — says, “Twenty-four centimeters.” “That’s a sturdy number,” he says, “It’s a factorial of four... What’s your telephone number?” When she gives it to him, he says, “That’s the total number of primes between one and one hundred million.”
The professor has adopted a few strategies for dealing with his memory, including pinning all sorts of notes to his suit to remind himself of things he would otherwise forget. These include a drawing he makes of his housekeeper’s face and a heartbreaking note that reads: “My memory lasts only eighty minutes.”
The Housekeeper and the Professor tells of the small adventures of the remarkable unconventional family formed by the professor, the housekeeper, and her ten-year-old son whom the professor calls Root because his flat head reminds him of the symbol for square root. The only proper names in the book are well-known mathematicians and Japanese baseball players.
The professor had evidently been a number theorist; his main activities during the novel are solving and writing up solutions for problem sections of a variety of mathematical journals. He also challenges the housekeeper and her son with small mathematical exercises. The housekeeper, a single mother with a very limited education, is intrigued and then drawn in by the professor’s fascination with numbers — perfect numbers, amicable numbers, prime numbers. For the professor, numbers offer an island of stability in a discontinuous world, and for the housekeeper they are windows to a new world.
The author, Yoko Ogawa, is prolific and highly regarded in Japan. This is only her second book to be translated into English. It is a small gem.
Bill Satzer (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior intellectual property scientist at 3M Company, having previously been a lab manager at 3M for composites and electromagnetic materials. His training is in dynamical systems and particularly celestial mechanics; his current interests are broadly in applied mathematics and the teaching of mathematics.