The Professor never really seemed to care whether we figured out the right answer to a problem. He preferred our wild, desperate guesses to silence, and he was even more delighted when those guesses led to new problems that took us beyond the original one. He had a special feeling for what he called the “correct miscalculation,” for he believed that mistakes were often as revealing as the right answers. This gave us confidence even when our best efforts came to nothing.
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa is a quiet story you’ll want to experience just for what it is. A story I don’t want to say a lot about, because too much talking will diminish it.
The Professor is a number theory expert with a traumatic brain injury. He remembers nothing after 1975, with one exception: in the present, his memory lasts exactly 80 minutes.
He rarely leaves his house. He wears scraps of paper pinned to his clothes to remind him of the important things: “My memory lasts only eighty minutes” and “the new housekeeper” (next to a sketch of the housekeeper’s face). He must live in the moment because that is all he has. He is a humble, self-effacing man who loves baseball and the great Japanese pitcher, Yukata Enatsu.
The housekeeper, a single mother, has come to cook the Professor’s meals, clean his small bungalow, and tend to his needs for a few hours every day. Her son has never known his father.
The Professor nicknames the housekeeper’s son “Root” because the top of his head is flat, like the square root symbol. These three lonely people become a self-made family. They find peace and refuge in the daily rituals of preparing and eating a meal, solving a math problem, listening to the radio.
When the Professor isn’t lost in his numbers or helping Root with his math homework, he likes to watch the housekeeper prepare dinner. With great fascination and single-mindedness he observes her stuffing and wrapping dumplings; he’s entirely caught up in the watching. Surprised by the undivided attention the Professor shows her, the housekeeper is given to understand she and her daily tasks are not insignificant.
They attend their first baseball game together. We see the stadium, the lights, the players, the crowds as if for the first time through the eyes of Root, the Professor, and the housekeeper.
The Professor buys Root popcorn, ice cream, and juice only from one particular girl selling food in the stands. “Because she’s the prettiest,” he says.
Another moment: “The ball cracked off the bat and sailed into the midnight blue sky, tracing a graceful parabola. It was whiter than the moon, more beautiful than the stars.”
In her spare prose, Yoko Ogawa never uses the word “love,” but that is what this story is about.
Quotes from The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa, Picador, New York, 2009.