Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa

Picador, March 2010

"Hotel Iris" by Yoko Ogawa is one of those novels you want to read with one eye closed.  In other words, the subject matter can be bizarre and grotesque and at the same time, you cannot stop reading because the story, the plot and the mood is so compelling, it draws you in almost against your will.

Our protagonist is 17-year old Mari who works in her mom's rundown hotel, "Hotel Iris" at a seaside resort in Japan.  (Well, atleast I think it's Japan but because the details of where the place is is so sparse it could be any seaside town, anywhere).

The novel opens on the cusp of Japan's hottest summer and also the busiest time of the year for Hotel Iris.  One evening as Mari tends to the front desk a commotion breaks out in Room 202 and soon she sees a "lady of the night" bounding down the steps in fear and anger and yelling out to the occupant in the room who it seems was intent on having rough sex with her.  Mari catches a quick glimpse of  the middle-aged customer as he leaves the room and throws two bills on the reception desk on his way out. 

Some days later Mari sees him again and to her great surprise she realizes he is not the commanding figure she thought he was when she saw him in the hotel that night, instead she sees he is a middleaged- to- old man (almost 50-years older than her), about her height and frail-looking.  She has this urge to follow him for not only is she curious about him, but on page 11 she tells us her thoughts upon hearing the customer shouting back at the prostitute in the hotel "I was confused and afraid, and yet somewhere deep inside I was praying that voice would someday give me an order, too."

You know how they say, be careful what you wish for?  Well, Mari's sinister wish came true.  She meets the gentlemen (we are never told his name) in town again and finds out  he is a translator of Russian pamphlets, medical documents and administrative papers and in his spare time he is translating a Russian novel whose heroine is named Marie.  The translator lives in an old isolated house on an island which is only accessible by boat and it there in his house that these sado-masochistic trysts between him and Marie take place. Note the restraint in Ogawa's writing with the prose being refined yet penetrating:

"He had undressed me with great skill, his movements no less elegant for all their violence. Indeed, the more he shamed me, the more refined he became — like a perfumer plucking the petals from a rose, a jeweler prying open an oyster for its pearl."

The narrator describes himself as a widower; a rumor in town says he murdered his late wife. Mari does consider the thought that the narrator might be a murderer but the thought seems to excite her as much as scare her.

Although the reader might wish to feel sorry for Mari, it is a little difficult to do so given that she really seems to enjoy these torture sessions. One is not entirely sure why though. Could it be that it adds some excitement to her otherwise dull life? Or is it because in some twisted way these interactions with the narrator make her feel loved  (something her mother seems incapable of doing?), or, does Mari feel this is what is due her because of her damaged sense of self?  Really not sure what her trigger is.  Perhaps it is none of the above and that she enjoys the pain purely for its physical sensation, after all, isn't pain supposed to release certain neurotransmitters, including natural painkillers like endogenous morphine?

Adding colour to this mouldy seaside resort story are a motley crew: Mari's mother (again nameless) whom I have already mentioned ( a thoroughly dislikable woman who works Mari like a slave without a single day off); a kleptomaniac maid; a blind guest and the translator's nephew who is tongueless and a student of architecture who Mari finds rather interesting.

This book was written in 1996 but was only recently translated from the Japanese into English by Stephen Snyder. Ogawa has won accolades in Japan for the two novels she wrote previous to this one, "The Housekeeper and The Professor" and "The Diving Pool". Ogawa's writing style is sparse and minimalistic, but she is so good at setting moods, providing a sense of place and manipulating a readers' senses with her spare words, that I almost want to say she is the writer equivalent of Alfred Hitchcock. Also, for all the torture, lust and obsessive behaviour that takes place between the pages of this book, the narrative tone comes across as being rather detached, even clinical, but because it is in sharp contrast to the behaviors it actually makes the read that much more interesting.  This is a bleak novel but exquisitely imagined.  I cannot wait to read Ogawa's previous two books.


Sanjay said...

You always pick the most interesting and eclectic books to read Lotus!
Does sound offbeat to me.
My guess from what I read in your review is that Mari has a damaged sense of self.
It is often hard to know what the trigger is for characters such as these, maybe because the only love they know of involves pain (not just the physical kind).
What did you think was the strongest point of the book other than the writing style?
Was there a sense that the place may contribute in some way to the traits in the characters? As in an effect exerted by a place..and if the characters are flawed and in some way vulnerable that may be another trigger?
Sorry, ignore it if it makes no sense.
Thank you for sharing.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Sanj! Thanks for the comment! Yes, this is offbeat...makes for a nice change. Besides, I've always found modern Japanese writers (especially the women) highly fascinating to read. They are not easy to read a lot of the time, but their plots, their willingness to shine a torch on the Japanese woman's place in society and their use of idiom brings its own rewards.

Why did I choose this book? Like I said, I am fascinated with contemporary Japanese women writers, also, this book came highly recommended by NPR, which is one of the places I get my reading suggestions.

Did the place influence the characters? Well, I suppose geography is supposed to influence both, our physical and mental natures, but I am not sure if the author makes any connection between the two. Like I said, this could have been any seaside resort, anywhere in the world. There is one thing though....the bungalow the narrator lived in was on a deserted or isolated island. We're not sure if the location of the bungalow turned him into the obsessive dominating person he became, or whether he deliberately chose an isolated house so he could act out those fantasies.

Either way, she (Ogawa) doesn't let on. ALso, I found her writing to be totally non-judgemental. It's not common to see a pairing like this, but she makes no moral comment about...just tells the story and that's it. :)

Sanjay said...

Thanks Lotus, for your response. Regular readers of your blog know about your interest in Japan, so that does partly explain it.
Are there any interviews by the author? Just curious, Mari may be like a lot of women who may subject themselves to the things she did due to her past and her sense of self worth? So that may be true across cultures no?
Yes, there may not be a connect between the geography and characters.
Like they say you don't know what happens behind that picket fence.
Glad that Ogawa is not judgmental, that is always her right as the creator and narrator of the characters.
I wonder if her detached style is so that she is more of a chronicler of events inside a microcosm of society and that gave her the perspective?
Not sure..I may be wrong here.
Thanks again for responding.

Sanjay said...

I also forgot to mention this, this title is from Picador and they do publish some interesting, offbeat books.
I recall you did a post on smaller publishing houses and Picador was one of those right?
So neat that you are supporting them thru your reads Lotus!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi again Sanj! No, I don't think I've come across any interviews by the author, but that could also be because I haven't looked! If she needed a translator for this book it is likely that she doesn't speak much English? I've included a tiny sample of her writing in my updated post. This is just to give you an idea of how restrained and yet vivid she can be. Yes, I really do enjoy books from Picador...it almost seems like they search hard for that one book which they know will stand apart from the rest.

p.s. I was reading something where the author described Ogawa's books as being "psychologically" ambiguous...I think that just about sums it up! :)

Sanjay said...

Oh Lotus, thank you for taking the time to respond and include a snippet of the author's writing!!!
I see what you mean.
Not sure if Ogawa's is fluent in English or not, although I must say even if she was, there are nuances and things specific to say an English native speaker or one for the North American market which may need translation?
Not sure just guessing, although you may know better here.
Ahh yes psychologically ambiguous does some it up.

Zibilee said...

I read and loved The Housekeeper and the Professor, so I have been excited to see what Ogawa came out with next. It sounds like this is a very different sort of book than her previous work, but it also sounds terribly complex and rewarding as well. I loved your review and am going to have to give this book a try. Though it does deal with some uncomfortable issues, it sounds fascinating!

J at www.jellyjules.com said...

Wow...what a concept, no? The excerpt reminded me of 'The Lover', by Marguerite Duras, who died in 1996, the year this was published. Might be interesting to read them side by side. Might be depressing, too.

Booklover said...

Ah! Now that's a book I hadn't come across before.The review is well written indeed. Makes me feel like picking up the book.

I love the book cover too :)

BookRack Reviews

Lotus Reads said...

Thank you Zibilee!!! I think I am going to work my way backwards. After I finish Vendela Vida's "The Lovers", I plan to read Ogawa's previous two novels. I already have "The Housekeeper and the Professor" on my shelf and now with a recommendation from you, I cannot wait to get started!

Lotus Reads said...

Hey J!

What a great idea!!! I read Dumas' "The Lover" ages ago, too long ago infact and would love to read it again! Want to hear a coincidence? I am currently reading a novel by Vendela Vida and the title is "The Lovers"! :)))

Some of Dumas' books have been turned into movies....I would love to get my hands on those. The period and location (Indo-Chine) she writes about have always been favourites of mine.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Booklover!

Yes, a very striking book cover indeed! About 3/4ths of the cover is nothing but darkness and then the only patch of light comes from a window which seems to lead nowhere but into the sea! Quite representative of our protagonist's life I thought!

Sai said...

It is such a bizarre story yet your review makes me feel that I should read it. However I cannot read such bleak stories...so cannot make up my mind.

Stephanie said...

This book sounds seriously creepy and, at the same time, really compelling.

Lotus Reads said...

Some of it is bleak Sai and some of it is graphic and detailed but you never get the sense she is trying to be provocative, just a storyteller.

Lotus Reads said...

Word, Stephanie!

Deviki @ Viki said...

Gosh this was a great review
I wanna read this book too.......From what i've read this book seem too interesting to ignore ....:)

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