It’s All Under Control…

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…

Hotel Iris is a fairly short novel, only 164-pages long in my version, yet it is incredibly deeply written.  All of the handful of major characters have been skilfully brought to life, each of them adding their nuances to the overall picture: Mari’s over-controlling mother with her obsession with her daughter’s hair; the kleptomaniac maid, who may suspect Mari’s secret; Mari’s father, long dead, but a potential source of some of her issues.  Even the hotel itself seems to be a part of the plot, with the ‘R’ of ‘Iris’ in the hotel’s name-sign hanging ominously askew.

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 😉

16 thoughts on “It’s All Under Control…

  1. I read a great deal of Yoko Ogawa's work in French before any of it was available in English and also found it “another indictment of the lack of adventure in Anglophone publishing” – or at the very least greatly disappointing that she wasn't yet translated into English. But that lack of adventure is perhaps still showing in the selections that have now been translated by Anglophone publishing, which still omit my favorites among her works (“La Petite Piece Hexagonale” and “Parfum de Glace” as rendered in French). I had to put down “the Housekeeper and the Professor” as it seemed such a safe choice compared to those others. “Hotel Iris” gets closer to those more challenging works, which will hopefully make their way into the Anglophone world one day.


  2. Isn't it a surprise to read this after The Housekeeper and The Professor? I liked it very much, in the same way I liked Lolita: thought-provoking, perplexing, sad stuff. Interesting point about who was using whom…one can never underestimate the power of the adolescent, even though I expect the adult to be wiser and more in control.

    I much preferred The Housekeeper and The Professor, but I'm glad I read Hotel Iris. And, I wish I could read Japanese so I wouldn't have to wait so long for the translations to appear in America.

    Glad you're looking forward to, as am I, the JLC6.


  3. Have read the housekeeper & the prof' and the diving pool which this sounds closer to in mood if not subject,matter & although both totally different loved both, I bought this only for it to sit languishing on my shelves. Also a certain sadness that this is the end of J-lit challenge 5 followed by a big yeah to the 6.


  4. Ah.. you finally read it, and like it. Quite a shock I must say. One of those unsettling books I have read which means no one will forget after reading this one.


  5. Seraillon – Once I realised a lot of J-Lit was available in German but not in English, I was tempted to give one a try, but I think I'll leave that until I run out of books 😉 Hopefully, more Ogawa books will be translated into English soon…

    Belezza – I actually preferred this one. My review for 'The Housekeeper…' is mildly positive, but I think I was being polite – it was OK, but nothing special. I'd love to see more of her 'darker' stuff 🙂

    Gary – Very keen to try 'The Diving Pool' after this one – and I agree about JLC6 (not that I'll stop reading J-Lit anyway!).

    Jo – Definitely not easy to get some of those images out of your mind! A very good read though 🙂


  6. A little unexpected, but very good. Dark and creepy it certainly is 🙂 Apparently, there will be a new Ogawa in English in Feb 2013 – called 'Revenge' (no idea which novel it is).


  7. I didn't read it in German actually but in French. Japanese literature tends to come out earlier in French and German.
    I don't mind dark at all but I didn't like this book. I remember books by Mishima and Kawabata that I had read just before Hotel Iris which are as dark as this and for a long time that's how I saw Japanese literature.


  8. The writing in Hotel Iris is just so perfect and gorgeous…indeed, I thought that combined with the subject matter made it even more disturbing. Stephen Snyder is a gifted translator, I think.


  9. Caroline – Oops; I just assumed it was German 😉 J-Lit does have its dark side, but I was initially attracted by the lighter, aesthetic side, and I think many others were too 🙂

    Colleen – I agree about Snyder, especially having read a few weak translations recently. I'd love to try more Snyder-Ogawa collaborations, but there's only one more out there (until next year, anyway!).


  10. we are so far behind french and german in terms of translation it is a joke at times Tony we need to up our game this is on my wishlist from library at some point ,all the best stu


  11. I actually preferred this one, and judging by most of what I've heard about Ogawa, it's actually a lot more representative of her work as a whole…


  12. Mel – It's definitely worth it – and (as noted above) probably more representative of her work than her first translated books in English…


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