The Housekeeper and the Professor
Mathematics is the language of the universe, and language is the bridge between human beings. Yoko Ogawa’s “The Housekeeper and the Professor” touches on this theme through its titular characters–a mathematics professor suffering from short-term memory loss and the housekeeper assigned to care for him.
The Professor’s brilliant mind for mathematics remained unaffected by the car accident that left him unable to remember anything after 80 minutes. Trapped in a cycle of memory loss, it’s the only language he knows how to communicate with. Whenever he meets someone new–and with his condition, everyone is a new face–he asks them a series of trivial questions: their birth date, shoe size, phone number, etc., which he then relates with a mathematical theorem or proof.
His odd mannerisms and mumblings about numbers predictably scare off several caregivers, but not the Housekeeper, the tenth one assigned to him. The Professor’s predilection for praising her phone number or birth date as “robust” or “interesting” numbers pleases her, her newfound knowledge on their importance making her feel special. In turn, she and her son, Root, forge a connection with the Professor in every 80-minute span he remembers them. They share in his love for baseball (a game defined by statistics), and he cares for Root like a father.
The way the Professor finds mathematical importance in even the most common numbers is emblematic of the author’s love for the mundane. Ogawa weaves poetry from the simplest things and breathes new life into them–the ribbon-like shape of numbers, the square root shape of Root’s hair, the inexplicable connection between a brilliant mathematical mind and a lowly housekeeper who didn’t even finish college. Unintelligible equations and patterns are distilled into relatable interactions between ordinary people. Overall, Ogawa’s novel reminds us that mathematics might be the language of the universe, but it still won’t explain the connections we forge with the unlikeliest of people.