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Yōko Ogawa: 博士の愛した数式 (The Housekeeper and the Professor)

The unnamed narrator of this novel is a single mother and the daughter of a single mother. She had a fling with a student and, when he realised that she was pregnant, he disappeared, though she has since seen his photo in the newspaper. The son born from that relationship is ten years old at the beginning of the novel. She is not very well educated – she never graduated from high school – and has since worked as a housekeeper for an agency. The job requires her to go to the houses of rich people and essentially take care of them, including cleaning their houses and cooking their meals. Her latest job seems a bit more difficult, as the employer has rejected quite a few other housekeepers.

When she arrives, she is met by a less than friendly woman. She lives in a big house but the man she is to look after – the eponymous professor – lives in a small run-down cottage. The woman, like everyone else in this book, she has no name – is the sister-in-law of the professor. We later learn that her late husband, elder brother of the professor had been a successful businessman and had financed the studies of his much younger brother. The younger brother had become a highly respected professor of mathematics, working on a variety of complex problems, and achieving a certain amount of international renown. However, some seventeen years ago, he was involved in a car crash and hit his head. As a result, he cannot remember anything that happened more than eighty minutes ago, except for events that happened prior to 1975, when he had the accident. Though he had to give up his academic career, he still maintains a very sharp mathematical brain and spends his time entering mathematical competitions, which he often wins.

When the narrator arrives, she is told that the sister-in-law does not want to be disturbed. When she first meets the professor, he does not greet her but, instead asks her her shoe size. When she tells him that it is twenty-four centimetres, he immediately tells her that it is the factorial of four. She, of course, has no idea what a factorial is, so he explains. When he asks for her phone number, he explains That’s the total number of primes between one and one hundred million.. She is very impressed. This ability to make something out of any number or collection of numbers will continue on a regular basis and, while it could have bored her, gradually becomes fascinating, so much so that she, relatively uneducated, becomes interested.

The professor is untidy, eats sloppily and does not like carrots. The narrator gradually tries to find a modus operandi that will work for both of them, and she does. He has little notes pinned to his jacket to remind of key things, such as the fact that his memory span is only eighty minutes and that there is a new housekeeper (with a crude drawing of her on the paper). Inevitably, of course, he forgets a lot but still manages his competitions.

One day, she mentions to him that she has a ten year old son. He is horrified that the boy is left at home after school. (Her hours are 11.00 a.m. to 7 p.m.) He persuades her that the boy should come to the cottage after school and spend time there, till his mother has to go home and this happens. One of the joys of this novel is the relationship between the boy and the professor. Because of the boy’s flat head, which reminds the professor of the square root sign (√), he nicknames him Root (we never learn his real name). The boy is not particularly interested in mathematics but soon takes up an interest, fascinated by the professor’s odd facts. The two share an interest in baseball and are both fans of the Hanshin Tigers, though the professor, of course, only remembers the players from the 1970s. With the Tigers doing quite well that season, all three follow the fate of the Tigers on the radio, which the professor agrees to get repaired when Root solves a mathematical problems (how to add up a long series of consecutive numbers quickly).

As I said the joy of this novel is the relationship between Root and the professor and, indeed, between the mother and professor, which develops over the course of the novel. The sister-in-law is not very keen on the idea but, eventually, comes to accept the benefits of the presence of Root and their occasional extramural activities. They (and we) learn a lot about mathematics, with Ogawa, who must be mathematical genius herself or have access to one, giving us many fascinating facts about the subject. Above all, however, this book is about relationships, an odd trio of people succeeding in a way that we the reader and the other characters would not have excepted and showing that you do not need to have a good memory or a good education to make friends.

Publishing history

First published in 2003 by Shinchosha
First English translation by Picador in 2008
Translated by Stephen Snyder