When we talk about Yoko Ogawa—that is, her works in English translation that have come to our radar—we might be forcefully reminded of her signature narrative, which is typically eerie and subtly atmospheric. And we might expect the same thing when we have The Housekeeper and the Professor in our hands, a 2003 novella which was first published in English in 2009. But you might be fooled, as much as I have been, once you read the very first page and fall into its rhythm. You’ll still encounter some mysteries, which are embedded in its tight plot, but mostly you’ll find it sweet and tender.
An unnamed housekeeper, who also serves as the narrator of the book, unsuspectingly takes a new job where she has to serve a 60-year-old mathematician at his shabby cottage. Nine housekeepers have already come and gone before her and none of them could bear the burden that comes with the job description. The housekeeper doesn’t find anything odd nor difficult in her daily duties, except for one thing: the professor’s memory only lasts for 80 minutes. The car accident he had in 1975 has cost him all of his memories he gains after that particular year. Every morning, when she comes for work, the housekeeper has to reintroduce herself and the professor will always restart their introduction with the same question involving numbers. As the time goes by, however, the housekeeper becomes more and more curious about mathematics and fascinated by the professor. The bond between them becomes stronger and stronger, more than just a bond between an employer and an employee, but it’s never a romantic one. Say it’s full of compassion, but it’s more mysterious than anything and cannot be explained through words nor formulas. Unfortunately, their moment together is unlike numbers which have no limits.
Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor has sweet and tender vibes radiated throughout its narrative, kept neatly at almost every spot of the plot. We can strongly sense them in the professor’s pure love for children, in his forever fascination with numbers, in his inexplicable relationship with the housekeeper, even in the peace he feels every time he solves mathematical problems or when he is watching the housekeeper cooking. Those sweetness and tenderness also emanate from the funny scenes, which often come out unexpectedly. Besides the two qualities, though, there is also an air of mystery, especially in the way the professor connects and communicates with the housekeeper. As strong as their bond might be, it’s not something that we can call romantic, or passionate. It’s sincere, yes, and scattered with jealousy on the housekeeper’s part sometimes. But it is not a simple love, it is more than you might think it is. And I think that is what this book is all about. It’s about love that is so unusual, as tricky and complex as mathematical formulas and all the numbers they produce.
The Housekeeper and the Professor is a short novel which relies heavily on its compact yet engrossing narrative, armed with a puzzle not only of numbers but also of words. The steady pace of the plot renders it very much enjoyable to read, although at the last 1/3 part of the book it feels a little bit too fast. That doesn’t matter, though, because all the mysteries there are arranged ever so neatly and revealed with so much care. Reading this book was like going on a smooth ride on a pleasant day, all nice and fun. If there was anything that’s ruining my joyful ride at times, it was the character of the sister-in-law and the reason she extracts herself from the professor’s life. At some point in the book, the housekeeper ponders whether it can be the way the sister-in-law keeps their “special bond” intact, but I still can’t see why it should be that way. Other obstacle coming to my way was all those numbers, mathematical theories and formulas talked about by the professor along the book. I have to admit, I am so dull at mathematics, and having to face all those things was almost like a pain in the neck to me. It was so unbearable that sometimes I had to skip the parts when the professor or the housekeeper starts to do their calculations.
All the hindrances aside, I still think The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa is an enjoyable, fabulous novella. It triggered my smile and made me teary-eyed at the end, not because it is tragic but because it is what the end should naturally be.
Note: This review is submitted to fulfill Opat’s 2016 Japanese Literature Reading Challenge.