Hotel Iris, Yoko Ogawa (Stephen Snyder, trans.). Picador. 176pp, $14.
Hotels make convenient literary tropes. They contain microcosmic worlds that can represent nationalisms or cultural forces in flux. The structure becomes emblematic of a crumbling or overly decadent national identity, the guests representing different classes or travelers in play with the larger structure. But hotels are not identities, nor nationalisms, and it’s far too easy to overplay this hand as a writer, to abandon the reality of a hotel’s physical structure in favor of squeezing it into a metaphysical mold. It was, therefore, with a bit of skepticism that I first approached Yoko Ogawa’s Hotel Iris.
The novel opens with 17-year-old Mari, the hotel proprietor’s daughter, witnessing as a prostitute is tossed out of a room, spitting insults at her client. The woman falls down the stairs, scattering her anger and rage throughout the entire hotel, while Mari’s mother apologizes, demanding money from the mysterious guest in the room. Mari is entranced by the man’s voice, mesmerized by the quality and the tone in which he dismisses the prostitute.
It’s a jarring way to start the novel, one ripe for analysis. But Ogawa has a way of hijacking a neat analysis of her characters or their meanings. The hotel is in a sleepy Japanese village on the sea, a crumbling down structure without much of a view and adjacent to a stinking fish canning plant. It has the unlikely name of a Greek mythological figure:
I always wondered how our inn came to be called the Hotel Iris. All the other hotels in the area have names that have to do with the sea . . . there were no irises blooming in the central courtyard, no roses or pansies or daffodils either. Just an overgrown dogwood, a zelkova tree, and some weeds . . . I wondered where my grandfather had come up with the story about the goddess since no one in our family knew anything about Greek mythology.
Iris, the messenger of the gods, is a go between who links the human world with the gods’; in the same way, the hotel links the various forces in this story. Mari ponders this goddess and her connection to her family’s history:
I tried to imagine the goddess—slender neck, full breasts, eyes staring off into the distance. And a robe with all the colors of the rainbow. One shake of that robe could cast a spell of beauty over the whole earth.
It is here where we first begin to see that Ogawa’s hotel is not a microcosm of Japan but the link between the human world and the world of the gods. It is through the hotel, that opening scene, that Mari meets the man who will transform her humdrum, restricted life into something less mundane.
A few weeks after the woman is kicked out of the hotel, Mari recognizes the man in town again, hearing him ask a question to a shopkeeper and remembering the tone of voice he used to insult the prostitute. Entranced by his voice, she follows him as he does his errands in the town, and when he calls her out, they begin chatting. She learns that the man is a translator of Russian novels. He lives alone and may or may not have murdered his wife. Mari eventually accompanies that translator out to his small house located on an island off the coast where she embarks on a sexually sadomasochistic relationship with him. As Mari explores this side to her sexuality, the island becomes in a way a suspended world where reality operates on a different plane. She then becomes the link from the human world on the mainland to this passionate, sensuous world where she ostensibly must relinquish all her power in order to please her master. Again, if we see the hotel as a symbol of the goddess Iris, then Mari herself becomes the embodiment of this role, linking the world of the gods to the world of man. Iris is highly associated with the sea and clouds and the imagery of these riddle the book. The small island where the translator lives is described as being “between the clouds and the sea” in a far off world where few have been.
The nature of power runs through Ogawa’s work. In her bestseller The Professor and the Housekeeper (translated by Stephen Snyder, who also translated Hotel Iris), the tale of an older man with a younger woman also centers the novel, the story driven by the tension between how women and men exert and use power differently.
Hotel Iris’s translator is mild-mannered and limpid, insecure, without a forceful personality. He writes beautiful and flowing letters to Mari full of romantic, almost schoolgirl-like notions of romantic love (an ironic twist in that Mari, the actual schoolgirl, has no such illusions); yet in his island world he is brutal and domineering. It’s tempting to see pat answers to these issues of power and powerlessness, but Ogawa keeps the narrative turned far enough off kilter that what seems straightforward is actually difficult to decipher.
The translator’s hand was soft. So soft, it seemed my hand would sink completely into his. This hand had done so many things to me—stroked my hair, made my tea, stripped me, bound me—and with each new act it had been reborn as something different. But was the hand that held mine now the same one that had killed a woman? The thought occurred to me at times, but it did not frighten me in the least. Had this hand strangled her? Or stabbed her with a pair of scissors? Or made her drink poison? I had no idea. But I could easily imagine how gracefully the fingers would have done those things . . . the curve of the knuckles, the faint web of the blue veins.
Ogawa’s characters often act without being self-aware, and there is very little reflection on why they make the choices they make, a fact has been interpreted by many critics as a lack of character development. But Ogawa is rarely interested in the reasons her characters do what they do. She is removed from their motivations; it is how our actions change our fates that interests Ogawa.
Though Mari doesn’t manipulate the translator with her sexuality consciously, it is precisely through her sexuality that Mari can begin to exert her power; yet Ogawa seems to believe that this is not the only way (or, indeed, the most lasting way) that a woman can achieve power. The mother rules the hotel with an iron fist; the maid (another middle-aged woman) manipulates and maneuvers both Mari and her mother to achieve her goals. Sexual power is a young woman’s game, Ogawa seems to suggest, and is only a temporary route to which women can attain longer-lasting power. But even these motivations are off-limits to Mari herself as she makes choices she doesn’t understand.
Long-translated into French, Ogawa is quite well known in the French-speaking world and owes much to the work of Marguerite Duras, not only in terms of theme (young girl fascinated by the force of a sexual relationship with an older man) but also in terms of style (which Snyder aptly captures). Like Duras, Ogawa writes with the ability to say much without many explicit external details, living in the actions of her characters who seem only incidentally affected by outside realities. Hotel Iris, like much of Duras’ writing, contains violence and oppression, and power resides at its center, as does a female protagonist who finds freedom through sexuality. Ogawa’s ability to turn literary tropes (like symbolic hotels) upside down, makes Hotel Iris an interesting if slightly off-kilter story which is one part comedic, two parts deadly serious.
Gregory McCormick is a freelance writer, editor, and translator. Raised in Idaho, he now lives in Montreal.
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