Asia By the Book is delighted to receive this review from Ryan Mita, former bookseller at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Company, a traveler who has volunteered his time and energy in South America and Asia, and a librarian-in-the-making.
In a shabby cottage in Central Japan lives a brilliant professor of mathematics, who wears a plain suit and moldy shoes. Handwritten notes are clipped onto every inch of his suit, tangible reminders of his identity. The most important note reads: "My memory lasts only 80 minutes." His new housekeeper is a single mother, an empty person who agrees that she contains a zero inside.
The housekeeper and the professor make an unlikely pair, joined by her son, nicknamed Root for his flat head. The professor will handwrite a note to remember their presence: "The new housekeeper…and her son, ten years old."
The plot unfolds unhurriedly as Ogawa skillfully blends little victories into larger, more painful setbacks. The housekeeper treats her son and the professor to see their beloved baseball team, the Hanshin Tigers. Root idolizes the current team and the professor had memorized the team's statistics until 1976, the season of the car accident that impaired his memory. This exciting shared experience will press the professor to the limits of exhaustion. After returning to the cottage, he develops a fever and slumbers for three days.
The housekeeper remains by his bedside, nurturing the professor back to health. However, the professor's sister-in-law reports this rule violation to the agency and the housekeeper is assigned to another client. As she mops the floor at a tax consultation office, she begins to believe in mathematics and "the sense that this invisible world was somehow propping up the visible one." Soon after, Root reaches out to the professor and the housekeeper is invited back.
During the hot summer, the professor devotes himself to solving a problem posed by the Journal of Mathematics. After two months of quiet concentration, the puzzle is completed and the housekeeper takes the proof to the post office. Satisfied, she purchases a few clean items for the professor and returns to the cottage in 70 minutes. The professor does not recognize her and begins their relationship again with the question: "How much did you weigh when you were born?"
Although his mind is mathematically keen, the professor's true gift is his ability to draw people together. For his elegant proof, the journal awards the professor first prize and the small family sets out to find a suitable gift. They decide to add to the professor's nearly complete baseball card collection. Together, the mother and son will crisscross the streets of an unnamed city in Hyogo prefecture. They will ride the "dingy elevators" seeking the elusive piece. And as they search, a new world opens up for Root, a world he shares with his friend and mentor, the professor.
One of the fascinating aspects of this novella is the clear and natural voice Ogawa writes with. Her voice allows Ogawa to create a pace, unmarred by actual names or specific places. Her seemingly simple plot hints at a larger story, like the intricate details in the foreground of a vivid painting, and makes The Housekeeper and the Professor a quietly astonishing book.