By Luciana Leitão
“We called him the Professor. And he called my son Root, because, he said, the flat top of his head reminded him of the square root sign.” The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Japanese author Yoko Ogawa, is a story about friendship and how it can endure something as powerful as a memory loss.
He is a Professor who, ever since a terrible accident, has lost his memory. He is only able to memorise for 80 minutes. The Housekeeper is a sensitive woman, who is in charge of taking care of the Professor’s home, following the commands of his sister in law. After a long list of housekeepers,
who have never been able to stay long at the Professor’s house, she is the only one to find common ground with the Professor. In fact, she becomes his friend.
How is it possible to be friends with someone who doesn’t remember anything? How is it possible to talk to someone every day, who seems to never know you? How is it possible to be friend with someone who keeps asking the same questions every day? It is.
The housekeeper, wise and sensitive, soon understands numbers are the only thing that make the professor happy. Sharing his love for numbers and their relationships is how she is able to understand him and communicate. Her son, Root — a name given by the Professor — a solitary and sensitive boy, soon starts to develop a friendship for the Professor, also sharing his love for Maths.
As the story unfolds, and it really picks up on numbers and their relationships, I kept on, unconsciously, doing the same exercises the Professor asks Root. I even picked up my calculator, at times, just to make sure I got the right answer. Considering Maths was never my favourite subject, this came to me as a surprise.
So, this story showed me two things: one, that teachers are very important, in this thing we call education. An inspiring teacher makes all the difference in the world. Secondly, it showed me how friendships are a lot more than merely shared interests or shared conversations. It is all about availability to understand each other — the Housekeeper doesn’t really want to talk about Maths, but she is available to do so, as she knows it is the only way to communicate to the Professor.
The Housekeeper and the Professor is an apparently simple story, written in an unpretentious way. But deeper issues arise in the book — the ties that bring people together, the need to live in the Present and the origin of feelings, when memory does not exist.
Moreover, after reading The Housekeeper and the Professor, I just wished someone as the Professor had stepped into my life when I was younger. Because, if we all had someone as the Professor teaching us Maths, maybe more of us would be interested in the subject.
THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR
By Yoko Ogawa
Translated by Stephen Snyder. 180 pp. Picador.