Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder
Memory and memory loss are reoccurring themes in Japanese novelist, Yoko Ogawa’s fiction. Last year I read and thoroughly enjoyed her most recent novel, The Memory Police which is entirely focused upon the power and importance of memory. Here, in a much earlier novel, The Housekeeper and The Professor, Ogawa focuses upon a close set of characters and explores the relationship between a professional housekeeper and carer, the older mathematician she is paid to care for and her ten year old son whom she often brings to work with her.
The so-called Professor of the title is an intriguing character. He’s an academic and mathematics genius who, several years previously, sustained a traumatic brain injury in a car accident and has since struggled to maintain short term memories. When we’re first introduced to the Professor he cannot remember anything which took place more than 80 minutes ago. He has resorted to pinning notes on to his clothes in an attempt to convey important pieces of information to himself. The Professor’s fondness for maths and baseball remain intact, as does his ability to reminisce about the distant past. All other thoughts and experiences, no matter how visceral or important, fade from his memory within a short time. As the novel progresses and the Professor’s condition worsens, his short-term memory gradually erodes until he finds himself struggling to remember anything and is, in the book’s final chapters, moved into residential care.
The Housekeeper and the Professor is not explicitly a novel dealing with Dementia. However, many of the symptoms displayed by the Professor are associated with various kinds of Dementia: his memory loss and disorientation, the comfort he takes from routine, his preoccupation with the past, the slow decline of his physical health and inability to connect with a carer he doesn’t recognise from one visit to the next. Therefore, it’s possible to learn about these specific experiences from Ogawa’s portrait of the Professor. I’ve included this novel in my list of texts because it explores a youngish man’s experience of memory loss, (the Professor is only in his late 50s when his condition first develops), and because it’s such a well-drawn and invaluable synopsis of the relationship which can develop between a person and their professional carer. By the novel’s close, it is quite clear that the time and attention she’s given to the Professor, mean that the Housekeeper understands him better than his own family.
This is a gentle novel with beautifully crafted characters and due attention paid to recording the experience of memory loss with honesty and precision, but also a modicum of hope. I’ve really enjoyed Ogawa’s writing and now intend to track down more of her novels. I’d thoroughly recommend this book.
The Housekeeper and the Professor was published by Vintage in 2010