The Housekeeper and the Professor
When Yoko Ogawa’s The Diving Pool: Three Novellas appeared in English in 2008, the book was acclaimed by British and American critics. They were particularly impressed by the author’s elegant style, by her skill in creating realistic settings, and by her restraint in dealing with situations that had all the ingredients of a horror film, since all of the narrators were withdrawn, unhappy, cruel women. The tone of The Housekeeper and the Professor is very different. While again the critics have praised Ogawa’s lucidity, her pictorial powers, and her gift for understatement, they point out thatunlike the novellas collected and translated in The Diving Pool, which emphasize the dark side of humanitythe novel tells a story of compassion and redemption.
Like the novellas, The Housekeeper and the Professor has a woman narrator: the unnamed, twenty-eight-year-old Housekeeper, who is the youngest employee of the Akebono Housekeeper Agency. Despite her youth, she has proven herself so capable that her employers send her to their most difficult clients. Up to this point, she has always succeeded in pleasing these clients. However, when the Housekeeper notices that the client to whom she is now being sent has dismissed nine previous housekeepers, she is curious and somewhat apprehensive. In an interview with a dignified, elderly woman, who is identified as the Sister-in-law, the Housekeeper learns that she will be working for a retired mathematics professor who lives in a cottage behind the house. The Sister-in-law also explains that, ever since he was injured in an automobile accident seventeen years ago, the Professor’s short-term memory has been limited to eighty minutes. The Housekeeper is scheduled to begin work the following Monday.
When she arrives at the cottage on her first day of work, the Housekeeper is surprised to have the Professor greet her by asking her shoe size. However, she soon realizes that, whenever he is unsure about what is going on around him, the Professor takes refuge in numbers. He spends his time working on mathematical problems, which he is able to solve with ease even though he can get through the necessities of daily life only by taking such measures as clipping notes to his jacket. At first, the Professor insists that the Housekeeper remain silent so as not to disturb his thought processes. Before long, however, he begins talking to the Housekeeper about number theory, which is both his specialty and his passion. One would not expect her to be particularly interested in such an abstract subject, but, even though she dropped out of school early, the Housekeeper proves to be both intelligent and intellectually curious. The Professor responds to her interest in his field of expertise by patiently showing her how numbers operate. When she observes that the way numbers connect with one another reminds her of the constellations in the sky, the Professor knows that he has successfully ushered the Housekeeper into the abstract world in which he lives.
It does not seem to occur to the Professor that, since the process of teaching necessarily involves reaching out to another human being, he has ventured out of his own world and into the Housekeeper’s everyday world. At first, the change in him is evident in his taking an interest in minor domestic matters, such as the Housekeeper’s cooking. However, there is no evidence that the Professor is still capable of feeling human emotions until he learns that the Housekeeper’s ten-year-old son has no one to take care of him between the end of the school day and the time his mother arrives home. The Professor is horrified. Imagining all sorts of catastrophes, he sends the Housekeeper home immediately, ordering her from that time on to have her son stay with her in the cottage whenever he is not at school. Although the Housekeeper knows that her agency does not allow employees to bring their children to the workplace with them, the Professor feels so strongly about the matter that she does not dare oppose...
(The entire section is 1650 words.)