I wasn’t sure whether to write about this book. I’ve read some marvellous novels this month – among them Angolan novelist José Eduardo Agualusa’s Man Booker International Prize-shortlisted A General Theory of Oblivion (trans. Daniel Hahn), Brazilian star Alexandre Vidal Porto’s Sergio Y. (trans. Alex Ladd) and Taiye Selasi’s powerful Ghana Must Go. With such a strong selection of titles to choose from, it wasn’t easy to single out one to review.
When it came to Japanese writer Yōko Ogawa’s Hotel Iris (trans. Stephen Snyder), however, there was an additional reason to be uncertain. Brilliant though it is, the book made me uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure how to feel about the way it treats its dark themes or how to describe its strange and unsettling plot.
But if this project has taught me anything, it’s that when I identify a personal limitation or blind spot, I ought to confront it head-on. And so, erhem, here goes.
Like Manazuru, the Japanese book I read for this project back in 2012, Hotel Iris takes place largely by the sea. The protagonist-narrator is 17-year-old Mari, the daughter of an overbearing hotelier who requires her to work long hours to keep the business afloat. But when a middle-aged guest is caught up in a scandalous scene after a prostitute refuses to comply with his wishes, Mari finds her world shifting. Drawn to the man’s voice, she seeks him out and fosters a friendship with him that quickly turns to something much deeper and darker, testing the boundaries of her being, releasing her from her mother’s rules, and allowing her to explore the nature of pain, pleasure, humiliation and desire.
The summary makes the book sound sensationalist and even trashy (I defy you not to think of EL James), but this couldn’t be further from the truth. For one thing, there’s the writing: a spool of precise sentences consisting of descriptions of small details that hint at the calibration and adjustments going on beneath the surface. The succinct simplicity of Ogawa’s (and Snyder’s) writing about Mari’s mother’s obsessive styling of her daughter’s hair or the snatches of music that drift through the hotel from the rehearsals of a visiting choir, for example, belies the sophistication of this multi-layered text.
There is humour and there is beauty, too, evoked through neat flashes of insight that net a moment, a character, a view in a handful of words. The kleptomaniac maid who nearly betrays Mari’s secret, for example, only appears on a handful of pages, and yet she feels like a familiar figure when she stumps into view, swigging beer and helping herself to unsupervised trinkets.
We see intimacy and vulnerability in both Mari and her partner, but we also hear a frightening clarity in her words. Time and again, she smashes open her descriptions with a final jab or last detail that lays bare the darkness beneath.
This is particularly true when the narrative spirals in on the violence and humiliation Mari silently wills the man, who we learn is a translator, to inflict on her. Here, the shock is often delayed, just like the translator’s blows, to fall all the heavier when it comes, as in this sentence, capturing the narrator’s anticipation of the physical engagement to come: ‘The fingers clutching the pen would grasp my breast, the lips pursed in thought would probe my ribs, the feet hidden under the desk would trample my face.’
Reading Mari’s frank descriptions and her admission that ‘only when I was brutalized, reduced to a sack of flesh, could I know pure pleasure’ is troubling. The violence is one thing, but what lingers long after the final page is an uncertainty about how to view the events described.
Should we see this as an account of a vulnerable young person groomed and seduced by a ‘pervert […] not fit for a cat in heat’, as the prostitute calls the translator in the opening chapter? Or does Mari’s pleasure in and desire for what befalls her turn the story into something else, regardless of the fact that – as far as she tells us – Mari never openly expresses her longing or consent so that for all her partner knows she may be enduring his ministrations under duress.
Is Mari, in fact, another kind of victim – warped in her sexuality by her mother’s control and the sad deaths of her father and grandfather? And does the fact that Hotel Iris is written by a woman have any bearing on how we answer these questions?
Honestly, I don’t know. But I think that this may be part of the point. In allowing all these possibilities and questions to co-exist between its covers, this novel pulls off quite a feat. Not only does it make us question human nature, sexuality, power and agency, but it also forces us to examine the way we respond to narratives, make choices and give credence.
In short, Hotel Iris makes us explore how we read.
Hotel Iris by Yōko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (Picador, 2010)