I’d never heard of this novel or its author before picking it up — I totally judged it by its cover one day while out browsing in a bookstore. And thank god I did, too, because it turned out to be absolutely wonderful.
It’s the quiet, simple tale of a housekeeper (never named) who is hired to cook and clean for an older gentleman, the Professor. Once a brilliant mathematician, the Professor was forced to leave his profession several years ago when a car accident all but destroyed his short-term memory. Though he can remember every detail of his life prior to 1975, new information is only stored for 80 minutes, leaving him perpetually dazed and confused, not to mention painfully sad.
Every day when the Housekeeper comes to work, she is a stranger again and must reintroduce herself to him, a process that typically involves a discussion about numbers of some sort — her shoe size, her telephone number, anything the Professor can turn into math he can relate to. The Professor covers his suit in little notes that help him remember key information, chief of which is “My memory only lasts 80 minutes” — a note that makes him cry each morning when he reads it again for the first time. On the cuff of his sleeve, he eventually attaches one that features a rough sketch of the Housekeeper along with her name.
The Professor and the Housekeeper soon settle into a routine, mostly one of silence, as the Professor spends much of his time working on elaborate math puzzles he finds in professional journals. But when the Professor learns the Housekeeper has a young son, he demands the boy start coming over after school to do his homework and eat dinner — it’s important that mothers and sons spend time together, he says. After getting permission from the woman who hired her, the Professor’s sister-in-law (who, we learn later, has a special and heart-breaking history with the Professor herself), the Housekeeper agrees.
Upon meeting her son, the Professor names him “Root,” because, he says, the top of his head is flat like a square root symbol. Though every meeting with Root and the Housekeeper is a new introduction, both Root and the Housekeeper come to love the Professor very much, and it seems as though, despite his inability to retain any information about them, the Professor begins to instinctively bond with them in return.
Root and the Housekeeper quickly realize the Professor uses lessons about math to make sense of the world and create connections between himself and others. They begin to cherish these teachings, as the Professor opens up to them the magical world of intricate number systems, complex equations, and the secrets of special integers, like “amicable numbers.” In exchange, Root and the Housekeeper keep the Professor connected, tethered to the world, regaling him with stories about baseball, school, and their own discoveries about math (which never fail to delight the Professor, no matter how simple they are).
In short, though his memory vanishes every 80 minutes, Root and the Housekeeper keep the Professor from vanishing with it.
Written simply and elegantly (it’s very Japanese in that regard), this short, affectionate novel is among the most awesome (in the true sense of the word) things I have ever read. I can’t wait to share it with all the other passionate readers in my life, especially the ones who also find magic in math and science (hi, Mom!). Definitely going to be one of my Top Ten Books list for 2011, mark my words.
There’s apparently a Japanese film based on this novel (published originally in Japan in 2003) – The Professor’s Beloved Equation. I haven’t been able to track down a copy of it yet, but will definitely keep trying and let you know if I succeed. If it manages to capture even a fraction of the beautiful simplicity of Ogawa’s words, it ought to quite literally be breath-taking. My fingers are crossed.
Highly, HIGHLY recommended, and I’ll be looking for more by Ogawa soon.