Yoko Ogawa’s Hotel Iris was written in 1996, but it took until 2010 for an English translation (courtesy of Stephen Snyder) to appear. While this is just another indictment of the lack of adventure in Anglophone publishing (I recall that Caroline told me she read it – in German – about ten years ago…), it’s still a surprise. This is an excellent novel, one which should have been translated a lot earlier.
Anyone expecting another gentle, heart-warming tale in the vein of The Housekeeper and The Professor is, however, in for a bit of a shock. Hotel Iris is an erotically-charged, breath-taking and, at times, extremely disturbing book, definitely not one for the nervous among you. If this doesn’t put you off though, then you’ll certainly be rewarded for your bravery 😉
The novel begins in the hotel of the title, a run-down, ramshackle place, set a little back from the main beach of a Japanese seaside town. Mari, the teenage daughter of the hotel owner, leads a boring existence behind the front desk, checking in the guests and helping out with the cleaning and cooking when required. One night, there is a disturbance in one of the rooms when a prostitute runs out, screaming at the man inside. As she flees, the man booms out a command – words which turn Mari’s world upside down.
It’s not giving away much to say that Mari eventually becomes involved with the man, who turns out to be a translator, one claiming to be working on an obscure Russian novel. This is no ordinary summer fling though; not only is the translator about forty years older than Mari, he also has some rather specific sexual preferences – and a very murky past…
Mari herself is a wonderfully-complicated person, switching from a sweet, obedient mother’s girl to a secretive, self-destructive wreck at the drop of a hat. Her deep need to be controlled and debased, stemming perhaps from events in her childhood, soon gets out of control. She’s the perfect find for the sinister translator, an empty vessel to be filled as he wishes…
…and yet, we have to wonder at times who is using whom. The story is told from Mari’s point of view, and there is no attempt to make excuses for herself or to shift the blame for matters fully onto the shoulders of the older man. While no secret is made of the translator’s deep-seated rage and his need to control every element of his life, things never appear forced in his treatment of Mari – at least, not more than she wants.
Ogawa’s novel can be extremely unsettling, but that’s definitely not a bad thing. This is a book where even inanimate objects can appear dark and slightly unnerving. The fountain in the hotel courtyard, poisoned by waste from Mari’s grandfather’s illness, decays just as Mari’s innocence does, and the story the translator is working on, a romance with a heroine called Marie, has parallels with Mari’s own life. Pay attention while reading this book as there is definitely more to what happens in the small seaside town than meets the eye.
As I suggested above, this is not one of those pure, aesthetically-pleasing, Japanese novels westerners love to read, so it may not be to everyone’s liking. However, if you’re ready to try something a little darker, why not check in at the Hotel Iris? Its length means it’ll only be an overnight stay; which is just as well – I wouldn’t want to be in Ogawa’s world for too long…
And that brings down the curtain on the current Japanese Literature Challenge, the fifth in the series. Thanks again to Belezza for organising the event – as always, it has motivated me to get out there and discover lots of wonderful new writers (and spend time with some old friends). Hopefully, it won’t be too long until JLC6 comes around 🙂 Until then, ja mata – ki o tsukete ne 😉