Yoko Ogawa’s “Hotel Iris”

Recommending a disturbing novel is tricky. Even if it is beautifully written and psychologically on the mark, it’s not easy to drive a reader toward excellence that may offend, disgust or horrify.  For Hotel Iris, I’ll ring the bell of caution upfront. This is exquisite, spare storytelling at its most powerful, and at the center is a  sadomasochistic relationship between a 17-year-old girl and a Russian translator in his 60s. Their intimate scenes are shocking and brutal.

The Hotel Iris offers run-down accommodations at a seaside resort in Japan.  Here the beautiful 17-year-old Mari, the novel’s repressed narrator, manages the front desk under the watch of her scolding mother. One night, a whore runs from a guest room, shouting at the translator, who shouts back, commanding the woman to be silent.  Mari describes his beautiful voice giving an order as “almost serene, like a hypnotic note from a cello or horn.”

Two weeks later, she sees the translator while doing her mother’s shopping and follows him. We feel her seeking him out, this mysterious, timid man who wears an immaculate wool suit even on the hottest days. He realizes Mari is following him and questions her. This nameless translator is kind and gentlemanly to Mari and after this first meeting, writes her letters. She is smitten by the careful attention he gives her. In the privacy of his home, that attention becomes sexual and rules her into submission.  In perverted physical intimacy, they fulfill each others needs of humiliation (Mari) and domination (the translator). Neither is a victim, both willing and desiring, both sad at their partings.

Yoko Ogawa allows early on in the story for us to recognize Mari’s pleasure in pain as a craving rooted in her self-hate originating from her mother’s contempt and her father’s absence. For most of the book, though, we don’t know why the shy translator becomes cruel in intimacy until Ogawa reveals how he lost his wife in a tragic accident. The puzzle piece drops into place, and exceptionally I might add, for Ogawa doesn’t state the answer. We are given the information to draw the conclusion ourselves, so we more effectively fathom the translator’s behavior.

Disturbing, yes, but Ogawa writes Hotel Iris in pristine prose that by its coaxing simplicity compels us to enter the dark other world. Even so, on the threshold of the intimate scenes, I hesitated, and then ultimately moved forward secure in Ogawa’s talent and compassion. Her insight into human behavior is acute and without compromise.

Ogawa is a popular author in her native Japan, where her books have won that country’s most prestigious literary awards. Hotel Iris and two others (among her 22 books) have been translated into English by Stephen Snyder, professor of Japanese Studies at Middlebury College. The Housekeeper and the Professor was mentioned on TLC last year. It, too, tells a moving story of an unlikely relationship.

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