In Japan, a woman who works as a housekeeper to support her young son takes an assignment with a mathematics professor. The professor himself no longer works. Due to a head injury his short-term memory lasts only 80 minutes. Then it is erased and he starts over. He has retained nothing permanently since 1975.
“What’s your shoe size?”
This was the Professor’s first question, once I had announced myself as the new housekeeper. No bow, no greeting. If there is one ironclad rule in my profession, it’s that you always give the employer what he wants; and so I told him.
The professor likes shoe sizes, birth dates and the serial number on the refrigerator. These are numbers — and numbers are what he remembers and understands. Yoko Ogawa’s enchanting short novel is about memory, relationships, numbers, and the relations between people and numbers. The Professor loves numbers:
“There were numbers before human beings — before the world itself was formed.”
If this makes the professor sound cold, he was not. Gruff maybe, absorbed in his contemplation of the numbers in God’s notebook, but very concerned about the housekeeper’s son.
“So he’s at home all alone? He sits and waits for his mother in a dark house while you’re here making dinner for a stranger? Making my dinner!”
The professor insists that the boy come to his house from school and spend the rest of the day, eating dinner together. Each day the boy arrives he must be identified and explained all over again. He is invariably greeted with a hug. The bond between them grows, based on the professor’s love of numbers, which he teaches to the boy, and baseball. Since the baseball season and players are frozen in 1975 in the professor’s mind, discussions must be censored for later references. They do it, becoming an assembled family in which the elderly man is the grandfather, joining with the mother and son. No spoilers here. Read this book for the story of a rare confluence of three otherwise rather ordinary human beings.