Hotel Iris (1996) – Yoko OGAWA

I read Ogawa’s beautiful short novel, The Housekeeper and the Professor, last year, and have been passively searching for her other work since. Written almost ten years before that novel, which made her (slightly) famous outside of Japan, this return to her earlier work stands in sharp contrast to the elegiac, restrained beauty which was so alluring in Professor. Hotel Iris is a brutal, shocking story of sexual desire, pent up energy, and family rebellion.

When a prostitute storms out of one of the rooms at the Hotel Iris, run by Mari’s controlling mother, Mari cannot help but be intrigued by the seemingly innocuous man that follows her out of the room. And so begins a relationship which must be kept secret from the rest of the town, for fear of being caught. As Mari adjusts to her new life of sneaking around town, and defying her mother, she remains blissfully unaware of the fact that this man is leading her down a dark and dangerous path.

Mari’s life strikes me as being all too typical in the post-bubble world of the Japanese countryside – and indeed, in other parts of the world, where urban drift is becoming harder and harder to ignore. Young people stuck in country towns with no dreams and no aspirations, having resigned themselves to a boring life spent looking after the family hotel, or working in the local restaurant until they get married and have children of their own – these are the people Mari seems to be modelled after. This lifestyle is exacerbated by her father’s death, the parent who seemed most  comfortable around her, and the fact that her mother is, shall we say, a bit unhinged. Her inability to help her own daughter with anything, seeing her almost as just another member of the hotel staff, no doubt contributes to Mari’s eventual sexual awakening, and subsequent defilling, in perhaps the most literal sense.

There is a small group of novels that deal with sexuality, and highlight the fact that, often, even if two people are consenting, sex is not necessarily all dimmed lights and romantic whisperings. Loaded and Praise are two that spring to mind – Hotel Iris is the other. Right from the get go, with the slightly overdramatic throwing out of the translator by his prostitute, there is a sense of sexual danger surrounding him, despite his less than glamorous looks. The first thought when you hear of a prostitute throwing out a customer is, “Wow – if not even she will do it, what on Earth could he possibly have wanted?” Which is, of course, playing into society’s views on prostitution and what not (let’s not forget – prostitutes are people, too, and have standards), but it’s the suggestion of such depravity on his behalf that sticks with you. They say it’s the quiet ones who are always the screamers in the bedroom, and though the translator is not necessarily quiet, his middle-aged lonely academic widower routine certainly hides the fact that he gets up to weird shit in the bedroom.

It seems strange, then, that these two people – a sexually adventurous middle-aged translator, and a young girl stuck in whoop whoop – should come together and strike up something of a friendship, though that is not the right word. Neither is relationship, though, which implies a sense of emotional intimacy between the two parties, which is not something that ever shines through here. Perhaps I have something of an idealised view of relationships, in which, for the most part, the two parties are essentially on equal footing when it comes to power and decision-making. That is most certainly not the case here – not only is the translator old enough to be Mari’s grandfather, it is clear that he has a vicious temper, and when he finally gets her into bed, it is unleashed with terrifying force.

I remain baffled, though, as to why this story needed to be told. It’s well written, but I’m not sure what the message is. What am I supposed to feel about this relationship? Certainly, I feel very uncomfortable. There are so many scenes that veer very, very close to what my law student friends would probably term “rape,” and yet Mari seems to go along with it willingly, at least physically. Clearly this is an unhealthy relationship, but it seems to stem not from the fact that they have violent, inventive S&M sex, but from the fact that he holds all the power – from the fact that he is more intelligent, older, and a man with a mysterious past. I don’t want to use the term “mind rape,” because this isn’t 1960s Star Trek, but there is a feeling that Mari is so out of her depth, she can’t see just how wrong the entire situation is.

If nothing else, Hotel Iris highlights the range Yoko Ogawa is capable of. Any author who can swing between an almost twee novel about an amnesiac professor, to a novel about some really weird bedroom obsessions, should be applauded for range. I’m intrigued to know which of the two extremes is more “typical” of her work – or is there a third option I just haven’t seen yet?

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