Mar 2016 - The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

“Eternal truths are ultimately invisible, and you won’t find them in material things or natural phenomena, or even in human emotions. Mathematics, however, can illuminate them, can give them expression – in fact, nothing can’t prevent it from doing so.”

                                                                                        The Professor


The Housekeeper and the Professor tells the story of a mathematician and the close relationship he forms with his housekeeper and her son.  The story is narrated by, the housekeeper, who is hired by the Professor’s sister-in-law. Her rules: the newly hired shall deal with the professor by herself and shall not come and go between the main house and the cottage, where the professor lives.  She is the tenth housekeeper, after a sequence of housekeeper failures. 

What complicates the story is the fact that The Professor has a memory span of only 80 minutes, which poses all kinds of challenges in his daily life. His memories are erased after such time due to a head injury he had suffered seventeen years earlier in 1975.

His memory clock stopped then and now he lives in a permanent past. His suit is covered with post-it notes with drawings and notes that remind him of important data, like his own memory is limited to 80 minutes, or “Root”, the nickname he gave to his housekeeper’s son whose flat head resembles a  square root symbol.


The Professor devotes his time to solving math problems. He likes baseball, and enjoys teaching to his new companions. He inevitably finds significance in random numbers (the housekeeper’s shoe size, a phone number, etc.), and explains them to his avid self-appointed students. Explanations of Primes, Mersenne Primes, Twin Primes, Imaginary, Amicable, Perfect, Abundant, Deficient and Triangular numbers populate the book. The Housekeeper, whose formal education was interrupted by her pregnancy at an early age, becomes a math geek. She is not scared by the mention of Artin’s conjecture, the Diophantine equation, Fermat’s theorems, or the math challenges the Professor poses to her son and she resolutely resolves.


The twist in the story happens after the sister-in-law decides to fire the housekeeper because she stayed overnight at the cottage after a baseball game the three attended. Frustration follows the separation, and after a while the Housekeeper is rehired. Routines are resumed, but the Professor’s conditions worsen and his memory shortens. Once a long awaited spot opens in a retirement home, the sister-in-law moves the Professor there. The Housekeeper and her son, who in time becomes a mathematician himself, visit him faithfully until the end.


The book is beautifully written; many times math is described with poetry. God and Eternal Truths are revealed throughout it. More terrestrial issues are also suggested like the secret love implied between the Professor and his sister-in-law via a photograph, a note promising eternal love and their mutual understanding of Euler’s formula. One wishes the book was more Japanese, if not for baseball, the story could have happened in any other developed country as there is no mention of any singularity distinctive of the Japanese culture. We wondered how the author made the Professor manage his 80-minute memory time limit during the baseball game the three main characters attended.


The group agreed on recommending the book to either baseball or math fans.


Alejandra Barbosa