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Numbers up for memory loser

LAST December the death of a man named Henry Gustav Molaison made headlines in The New York Times and around the world. He was famous in scientific circles for not being able to remember anything new longer than 15 minutes, due to an accident. He had spent the later part of his life in a Connecticut nursing home being a subject known only as H.M. in psychology experiments.

A similar malady, but a more humane fate, has befallen the "professor" in this deceptively elegant novel, which was a best-seller and a movie in Japan. A car accident has robbed him of the ability to remember any new memories for more than 80 minutes. For him time stopped in 1975, when he was a prominent math teacher and the famed pitcher Yutaka Enatsu was mowing down batters for the Hanshin Tigers. He lives in a ramshackle cottage in his sister-in-law's backyard, doing math puzzles and walking around with reminder notes stuck to his suit, the most prominent of which says, "my memory only lasts 80 minutes."

"The Housekeeper and the Professor" tells of the adventures, such as they are, of the remarkable virtual family formed by the professor's new cook and cleaner, the single mother of a 10-year-old boy whom the professor calls Root because his flat head reminds him of the mathematical sign for a square root. Nobody except Root really has a name. Every morning the housekeeper, who narrates the story, has to introduce herself and her son to the professor all over again. He, in turn, as he does whenever he is stuck or flustered or has extended his 80-minute window, is likely to ask her shoe size or her telephone number. He always has something amazing to say about whatever number comes up.

Take, for example, the jersey number of his beloved Enatsu, 28, the second smallest so-called perfect number (that is, the sum of all its factors excluding the number itself). Or the housekeeper's birthday, February 20 - 220 - which turns out to be "amicable" with the number 284, which is engraved on the back of a watch he was given in college as a prize for his thesis; the factors of one number add up to the other.

When he discovers, over and over again, that the housekeeper has a young son, the professor becomes fiercely tender and demands that she bring him to the cottage so he won't be alone after school. He adds a picture of the boy to the note he keeps pinned to himself to remind him of his new housekeeper.

One subplot revolves around the effort to take the professor out to a baseball game. He is attracted by the raffish pile of statistics that define the sport and the players' careers, but he has never actually seen a game.

By the standards of conventional melodrama, nothing much happens in the novel. Yet by those standards, nothing much happens when you count 1, 2, 3... Still, as the professor will tell you, and the housekeeper and her son will discover, the opposite is true. This is one of those books written in such lucid, unpretentious language that reading it is like looking into a deep pool of clear water. But even in the clearest waters lurk currents you don't see until you are in them.

Dive into Yoko Ogawa's world (she is the author of more than 20 works of fiction and nonfiction) and you find yourself tugged by forces more felt than seen. What is the problem with all the men in the housekeeper's life? Who is the woman in the photograph buried under baseball cards in a tin on the professor's desk? Can the professor love somebody he can't remember?


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