What a great book... I will start by writing the end in this post, because I was so impressed with this work of literature. I first heard of Ogawa through other bloggers participating in the Japanese Literature Challenge, as she's regarded as one of modern Japan's more renowned authors. From her various works, I somehow saw something more in The Housekeeper and the Professor, so decided to read this for the challenge.
The story is more or less straight-forward: The Professor has a memory of 80 minutes. He walks around with notes clipped on his clothes that remind him of the more important things around him (the first being that his memory only lasts for 80 minutes). The housekeeper, number 9 in a long list of housekeepers who've quit, learns to come round this challenge. Enter her son, and the establishment of an almost-family that goes beyond professional relations. This relation will remain until the end a fundamental one for all involved.
What amazed me was what went beyond the surface: the Professor, an established genius, cut short due to an accident. His memory only lasts over an hour, before he has to start from scratch. What keeps him sane? Mathematics. It may be because I am a slight nerd, but I found this relation of science with the everyday life so interesting, I read all there was indicated, together with all the formulae included (and, believe me, some of the findings are very interesting!). The Professor can explain the world through the axioms, the riddles and the challenges posed by mathematical problems, and his interest carries on to the housekeeper and eventually her son.
Ogawa has a gift in looking into the way the human soul grasps the meaning of time, of cognition and of belonging. Her simple description of all three characters show how easy it is to label people and let them be miserable, while when left on equal terms, everyone flourishes:
- the professor regains joy in life (for 80 minutes)
- the housekeeper and the son get to be in a family they never had
- the housekeeper also learns to appreciate the problems the professor puts to her attention, so we even have the teacher-pupil situation that provides this extra value in the housekeeper's life.
How did the housekeeper manage to overcome the professor's disability? how did she come to care for him beyond her working hours? This primal care instinct has but eclipsed in our days and I was so pleased to read about it again, in such a humble manner. There is no great drama (even though the housekeeper's story is really a tragic one), but there is underneath all the harshness of the present world, a little flickering light of goodness to each other. And then there was the bond between the professor - in his own world, devoid of any kind of feeling, with the 10-year old boy - such a great bond, the way they take care of each other. The professor making provisions for the boy - and the boy finding the father figure. Family can be found in weirdest places...
I was also impressed by Ogawa's choice to use mathematics to serve a uniting role of three different people. While it is true they include "miracles", I was nevertheless left speechless by the power this science has and how many of the "occult" meanings can actually be explained by everyday applications...
I very much enjoyed this book. In a world of all types of difficulties, what matters is the past history of each of us - we tend to judge but what we see in front of us, right now, without a thought about the story that hiding behind our "facade" we put into the world. The professor has been dismissed as an invalid, the housekeeper as a "second-class citizen" - yet, between them they found the real qualities of each other and got to step outside their boundaries. What a great book!