In Yoko Ogawa’s novel, The Hotel Iris, run by a mother-and-daughter team, is a third-rate hotel in a dull seaside town. The mother manages the shabby hotel which has been in the family for over 100 years with a rod of iron and more than a streak of mercenary nastiness. Daughter Mari, upon the death of her grandfather, was forced to leave school and begin working at the hotel. With long hours and the nonstop demands of the hotel guests, Mari is almost a slave to her domineering mother.
The Iris came into being when my great-grandfather fixed up an old inn and turned it into a hotel. That was more than a hundred years ago, In that part of town, a restaurant or hotel was either supposed to have an ocean view or to be right on the beach. The Iris didn’t qualify on either count: it took more than half an hour to walk to the sea, and only two of the rooms had views. The rest looked out over the fish-processing plant.
There are corners of darkness in Mari’s life: a kleptomaniac cleaner who can be blackmailed, the excruciating death of her grandfather whose agonising groans heard by the guests were explained as caused by cats “in heat,” and a pedophile sculptor who “nearly raped” her. There’s no life beyond the hotel for Mari, so perhaps that partially explains why she’s fascinated when a scene occurs at the hotel involving a prostitute and a male guest “past middle age, on the verge of being old.” There’s something about his voice, “giving an order,” which strikes her as beautiful, and the ugly scene provides Mari with a memory she can’t get out of her head. Months later, she spots the man again, follows him, and they strike up a relationship. …
The man, a widower, who later becomes known as ‘the translator’ translates commercial material for a living, and is translating a Russian meganovel in his spare time. He lives alone on an island, and it’s rumoured that he murdered his wife. The translator represents many things to Mari: perhaps he’s a father figure, perhaps the air of mystery which surrounds him intrigues her, perhaps his tenderness towards Mari fills a need, but whatever the reasons behind the attraction, before long the translator and Mari, who sneaks away from the hotel with various excuses, engage in a relationship that begins with a little B&D and then morphs into the very dangerous territory of S&M.
For those interested, there are some B&D/S&M details here, and while the story is told through Mari’s eyes, the details are precise but not overly salacious. The hours Mari and the translator spend together are catalogued so that it’s easy for the reader to see a steady progression of pain and humiliation told with almost clinical care. What’s so interesting here is that while Mari is definitely under the spell of the translator, she never loses sight of his aging body, the wrinkles, the sagging, and his ears “no more than a limp sliver of dark flesh.”
This is a deeply disturbing, yet fascinating novella about obsession and a twisted relationship that, with its escalating violence, can only end one way. It’s fascinating that Mari, who at 17 could be in the power seat here, instead abdicates that power to a much older man on the teetering point of frailty. And yet… does Mari abdicate that power or does she subtly remain in control?
For readers and animal lovers: a warning about the fate of an unfortunate mouse who inadvertently becomes a witness to one of the more unpleasant scenes between Mari and the translator.
Translated by Stephen Snyder