Yoko Ogawa is a writer with a very subtle, powerful intelligence whose work I greatly admire. I have previously posted on her most famous work, The Housekeeper and the Professor, a darkly cutting collection of short stories, Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales, and several longer short stories in her collection, The Diving Pool. It would be difficult for me to say which if her works was my favorite but for sure Hotel Iris: A Novel is the most disturbing. It is disturbing not just for its subject matter, the severe sexual abuse and bondage an older man practices on a seventeen year old woman, but by our reaction to the very graphic scenes. Do we feel the proper moral indignation at the predatory sex or does our voyeuristic side enjoy them even wonder what it would feel like to be on either side of these scenes.
The novel is set in the Hotel Iris, located on a small Japanese resort and fishing island. The hotel is run by Mari and her mother with the help of a maid. It is a small place with only eight rooms and a kitchen. The mother takes care of the books and Mari works the desk, deals with the guests, and does the cooking. She and the maid, a kleptomania, clean up the rooms. Some of the customers are on holiday, some are traveling business men but a good number are lovers or men who need a place to bring prostitutes. Mari has learned a lot about people from observing the guests at the hotel.
We first meet her lover/abuser (maybe in his mid fifties) when they have to throw him out of the hotel because the prostitute he had brought to the hotel runs from the room screaming that he is a filthy pervert. The mother, after making sure they are paid for the room, tells him to never come back. Mari is intrigued by his voice. We think she is a virgin but we cannot be sure.
One day she is on an errand in the town on the island where she encounters the translator (he ekes out a living translating Russian into Japanese-we never learn his name). The man profusely apologies for the incident at the hotel and Mari assumes she will not see him again. Wanting to learn more about him, she follows him back to his small cottage. In normal behavior, he is the most courteous kind gentle person. I do not wish to describe what he does to her other than say it is degrading in the extreme.
We then have at least two opened questions. Why does Mari crave having this done to her over and over, almost live for it, and why does the translator, who might have killed his wife, act as he does in the face of his seemingly contrary nature. Mari begins to make up lies to tell her mother to cover her time with the translator. He begins to send her, care of the hotel, beautifully loving letters. There is no reason not to see him as loving her.
There are interesting developments involving the hotel maid, Mari and her mother and we learn a lot about how a small hotel is managed on a Japanese resort island. We also meet the translator's mute nephew in a really bizarre sub-plot with one very shocking and staggering line you will be stunned by, I know I was.
The relationship between 17 year old Mari and the translator is puzzling to say the least. I have three daughters 14, 16 and 19 and something like this happening seem to me impossible, purely crazy but that is what Mari's mother thought also.
The ending is really well done. It gives us a feeling of real closure.
As long as you are not offended by near x-rated sex scenes, I recommend this novel for its wonderfully imaginative plot lines, its treatment of the relationship between Mari and her mother as well as Mari and the translator. It can inspire you to think deeply about the relationships of sadism and passion, love and control. I think it can also be seen as a story about the consequences of living in a very controlled society which has lost its bearing.
The last two translations of Japanese novels I read were marred by also sorts of typos and misspellings. errors any proofreading at all would have found. Hotel Iris: A Novel is flawless and the translation is very elegant.
Yoko Ogawa was born in 1962. She has written over twenties books but only a few have yet been translated. One of her novels was made into a movie and she has won numerous Japanese literary prizes.
There is more information on this title on the webpage of the publisher, Picador. Picador publishes a lot of very interesting cutting edge works and I saw lots of great titles in their very diverse catalog.