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.