Great Translations: The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

Jim Fonseca
4 min readAug 10, 2022
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A housekeeper is hired to clean and cook for an elderly Japanese man, a retired mathematics professor who suffered a brain injury. The young woman is a single mom, only child of another single mom. It’s unfortunate she had to drop out to start working full-time before finishing high school because, as the story goes along, we see that she’s better at doing math problems than even her bright son is.

The Story: The professor is 64 (Is that elderly? lol.) Although he can remember events from the past and all his mathematical knowledge, he can only remember new things for 80 minutes. So each day when she arrives at his house she has to re-introduce herself. Every day he asks her some numerical question ranging from her birthday to her shoe size and then he expounds about some unique aspect of the numbers of her response. Over time, of course, he asks her the same questions numerous times.

When he finds out that she has a ten-year old boy who is a latch-key kid waiting at home for her, he insists that she let the boy come over after school. So the boy and the woman start learning math. We learn a bit about math in the process — things like prime numbers and amicable numbers. The way the math is presented is fun, so that shouldn’t deter anyone from reading the book.

What we also learn is that, although the professor’s presumption is that he is teaching her son, the housekeeper is fascinated by the subject and she is good at math. The professor and the boy are also fascinated by baseball stats. The professor still thinks his favorite baseball team has the same players it had in 1975 when he suffered his injury. She takes them both to a baseball game — neither has ever been. Little by little they start becoming a family.

Interest is added to the story by the professor’s quirks, and he has plenty. She’s the ninth housekeeper her agency has sent recently — the others quit or were fired. There’s also a mystery she solves about the relationship between the professor and his widowed sister-in-law. The professor lives in isolation in a cottage behind his sister-in-law’s house and they seem to have no interaction. But the sister-in-law keeps him functioning and hires and fires the housekeepers. Tension is added to the story because the sister-in-law…

Jim Fonseca

Geography professor (retired) writes The One Minute Geographer featuring This Fragile Earth. Top writer in Transportation and, in past months, Travel.