Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
After a somewhat bumpy relationship with literary fiction for the past few weeks, The Housekeeper and the Professor delivers an enjoyable experience that reassures me some literary fiction is sublime. Full disclosure: I am studying mathematics, so I do find the subject matter in this book fascinating. I understand that less mathematically-inclined readers might not, but I don't see that as an excuse for enjoying this book any less. The Housekeeper and the Professor isn't a textbook, nor is it a treatise. Most of the math is high school level, and one doesn't need to pay attention to it to follow the story.
Instead, one must focus on the emphasis on mathematics and the way the characters in the book embrace it. The Professor never misses an opportunity to observe an interesting relationship between two numbers or educate the Housekeeper or her son, Root, about some sort of mathematical proposition. Ogawa perfectly captures the way I feel about math, the reasons why I'm studying math in the first place. There's something transcendent about this search for truth through numbers . . . math allows us to express aspects of the universe that would otherwise remain invisible. You don't have to be a math genius to comprehend this, as Ogawa demonstrates with her character of the Housekeeper.
I'm not just fond of these people's titles. Ogawa is very stingy with her names: a famous baseball player gets one, and Root's designation is more of a nickname than a title, but everyone else is out of luck. The Housekeeper and the Professor are exactly that; the former has a "Director" as her boss and the latter has a "sister-in-law" as a minor antagonist. Most of the time, when a character lacks a name, that means he or she is minor and unimportant. Obviously this is not the case here, and by making almost everyone nameless, Ogawa manages to make it feel normal. Still, the lack of names can make it hard to establish identity. While I contend that Ogawa succeeds at this for all three of the main characters, I understand how one could find it difficult to empathize with them.
The characters' namelessness is fitting considering the novel's subject matter. Like the mathematics that he studies, the Professor is an abstraction. In fact, owing to his condition, he is a Professor of Mathematics—and that's all he is. His memory loss has shrunk his world such that math is the only thing he has left. He grasps numbers because they haven't lost their meaning for him like the rest of the world has: whether it's 1975 or 1990, 220 and 284 will still be amicable numbers. To some degree, one can say the same for the Housekeeper. After her young pregnancy, she takes up the only work she knows how to do; since then, this has been her life. Hence, these titles are fitting enough identities for the characters. They would be stifling if Ogawa failed to develop the characters beyond their titles; fortunately, that's not the case.
For a story set in Japan, The Housekeeper and the Professor is completely accessible to the Western audience. I could almost forget its setting and think it takes place in North America. The most important relationship, in my opinion, is the one between the Professor and Root. It takes on the qualities of a father-son relationship that anyone will recognize. Not only does the Professor educate Root and challenge him, but Root in turn looks after the Professor, cares for him, and rekindles the Professor's love of baseball. This shared enthusiasm for baseball is one of the few ways in which the Professor ever comes close to transcending the eighty minute barrier on his memory. By this I mean that, whenever Root engages the Professor in a discussion about baseball, the fact that Enatsu has long since left the Tigers seldom matters . . . suddenly the Professor has something other than mathematics he can talk about to a like-minded person, and his little world has just grown bigger.
Root matures considerably throughout the book. At first, the Professor's manner startles him, but he quickly grows accustomed to the rituals he must endure. Soon, he becomes not only fond but protective of the Professor. At one point, the Housekeeper has to leave to buy cooking oil. She is worried about leaving Root alone with the Professor, but Root assures her that it's fine. However, when she returns, Root has accidentally cut himself with a kitchen knife. It isn't a big deal, but after, Root is cold toward his mother. When she asks why, he says, "I'm mad because you didn't trust him. I'll never forgive you for that." It's a small scene, but it's significant, for it shows a strength of character and a sense of judgement far advanced of Root's age.
Despite such incidents, their time at the Professor's house strengthens the relationship between the Housekeeper and her son. It's the Professor who suggests—nay, practically orders—that the Housekeeper have her son come to his house after school so he doesn't have to be a latchkey kid. She cooks dinner for three now instead for one, and the arrangements are more domestic—like a family, but not quite. The Professor is always happy to show Root and his mother some new numerical notion. When she first meets the Professor, the Housekeeper is fascinated by his interest in math and his gift for teaching. However, it's Root's involvement that truly encourages her budding appreciation of mathematics. As she sees the Professor and Root explore math, both through Root's schoolwork and the problems posed by the Professor, she joins them in order to avoid feeling excluded—and in so doing, she becomes enchanted by math.
The only other character of any importance is the Professor's sister-in-law. She only appears when there's trouble, and she seems curiously intractable and eager it misunderstand. When never get a complete picture of how she feels about the Professor, other than that she feels compelled to care for him. I didn't enjoy the confrontation between her and the Housekeeper and didn't quite understand the significance of the Professor settling matters by scribbling down Euler's formula. Indeed, the inscrutability of this part of the plot is one of this book's few miscalculations. In almost every other respect, Ogawa manages to hit just the right notes.
The depiction of the Professor's anterograde amnesia is realistic and harrowing. The poor man only has an eighty-minute memory and walks around with notes clipped to his suit! Throughout the book, the Housekeeper has so many conversations with him, learns so much from him, even takes him to a baseball game . . . and he remembers none of it. For him, it's always 1975. Enatsu is still a famous pitcher for the Tigers. Ogawa shows us how the Professor's condition makes it difficult for him to live a fulfilling life. Oh, he enjoys himself when he's solving a math problem and constructing a proof . . . but he will never remember all of the proofs he's constructed prior to that, all of the contests he's won, or any of the great new developments in number theory since 1975. The thesis that the Housekeeper finds beneath the false bottom of a cookie tin containing baseball cards gives us a glimpse into the Professor's past life, one from which he is now irrevocably separated by his accident. He can experience transitory joy, but he no longer has the capability for lasting satisfaction or contentment.
Then when the Professor's amnesia worsens toward the end of the book, it's just heartbreaking. Here is a man who is so kind and thoughtful, and he's already had so much taken from him. Now he's lost the rest, and his eighty-minute memory becomes a zero-minute memory. He lives entirely in the present, which is not as wonderful as it might sound. As a result, Ogawa reminds us that the past has immeasurable value. It helps form our personality and is full of a vast collection of experiences, both good and bad, that contribute to how we understand the universe. The Professor was always happy to meet Root and teach him mathematics. But he would never understand the joy of watching Root grow up over a number of years, never watch Root's love of mathematics blossom into a passion that would lead to teaching math in elementary school. This experience is forever lost to him.
I wouldn't call the ending to The Housekeeper and the Professor sad, but it certainly wasn't happy. Although there is a little romantic tension between the two eponymous characters—and the Professor becomes a strong father figure for Root—this is not a romance, and there is no happily-ever-after. The Professor's anterograde amnesia becomes total, and he loses what small amount of independence he has managed to retain. The Housekeeper and Root must move on to other jobs, must continue on with their lives without the Professor, without his lectures or his mathematics or his note-covered clothing. It's a separation more profound than death, for they must go on with their separate lives, changing and growing even while the Professor continues to forget, and forget, and forget. . . .
Memory is fragile and tenuous, yet oh so important to our conception of self. Yoko Ogawa reminds us of the importance of memory in a fascinating, unassuming way. The Housekeeper and the Professor is a whisper of a novel, something that will take root in your mind and blossom into a fond memory.