I may have mentioned before that I love Japanese fiction, and Yoko Ogawa is a writer I really admire. My first encounter with Ogawa was The Diving Pool, a collection of three short and disturbing novellas dealing with the darker side of human nature; the title novella being an unnervingly close and frank examination of obsession. Later I happened across The Housekeeper and the Professor, which I think I’ve mentioned here before, and on the surface the two books couldn’t be further apart; the latter being an upbeat, heart-warming novel about an unusual relationship between a man with a long-term memory problem and his single-mother housekeeper. Yet Ogawa’s keen insight on human behaviour, her sense of the inner psychology of her characters, forms a bridge which links both works. It is a link which flows through to Hotel Iris, where Ogawa returns to shiveringly dark form.
Hotel Iris is the story of oppression. Mari is a young woman who works at the Hotel Iris, a small, family run hotel in an unnamed town on the Japanese coast. Her mother runs the hotel, and we learn that Mari was forced to leave school at an early age to help out at the hotel, following her Grandfather’s death from cancer. It is apparent from the beginning that Mari leads an oppressed existence; her mother dictates her every movement and even the maid steals from her room, leaving Mari with no secrets and no privacy.
Against this backdrop, Mari finds herself intrigued by a male guest from the hotel. The story opens on the incident which attracts her attention:
‘”Shut up, whore.” The voice seemed to pass through us, silencing the whole hotel. It was powerful and deep, but with no trace of anger. Instead it was almost serene, like a hypnotic note from a cello or a horn.
I turned to find the man standing on the landing. He was past middle age, on the verge of being old. He wore a pressed white shirt and dark brown pants, and he held a jacket of the same material in his hand. Though the woman was completely dishevelled, he was not even breathing heavily. Nor did he seem particularly embarrassed. Only the few tangled hairs on his forehead suggested that anything was out of the ordinary.
It occurred to me that I had never heard such a beautiful voice giving an order. It was calm and imposing, with no hint of indecision. Even the word “whore” was somehow appealing.’
Mari sees the man in the town the next day and follows him. When he confronts her, she is embarrassed, but later they enter into correspondence and a relationship begins to develop. The man, referred to only as the ‘translator’ clearly has violent and controlling tendencies, but this does not deter Mari. In fact this is what seems to appeal to her the most. They enter into a sado-masochistic sexual relationship in which Mari is beaten and punished, bound, sexually assaulted by a man she believes to have killed his first wife. Though Mari is young and sexually inexperienced, she craves the release that the violence gives her; she thrills in her degradation at the translator’s hands.
“The blades touched my abdomen. A cold shock ran through me, and my head began to spin. If he had pressed just a bit harder, the scissors might have pierced my soft belly. The skin would have peeled back, the fat beneath laid bare. Blood would have dripped on the bedspread.
My head filled with premonitions of fear and pain. I wondered whether his wife had died like this. But as these premonitions became realities, pleasure also erupted violently in me. I knew now how I reacted at such a moment: my body grew moist and liquid.”
Hotel Iris is, not surprisingly, a disturbing novel, not least because of how such a young and naïve girl can take such pleasure in the violence enacted upon her, returning over and over for more. Mari is oppressed by everyone around her, her mother particularly though even the maid seeks to control and humiliate her. In the arms of the translator, she appears to seek release, perhaps for her inner rebellion against the constraints in her life, by submitting to his sexual perversity with a combination of fear and thrill. As she describes their relationship unfolding, she reflects on her childhood, particularly her memories of her alcoholic father and how together they would break the rules and boundaries that her mother set for them. Her father’s violent death seems to be a pivotal moment in Mari’s existence, and her submission to her mother a catalyst for the violence of her first sexual relationship.
What Ogawa does really well is create a sense of oppression, a close but non-judgemental examination of Mari’s mind and motivations. I don’t think there is a moment in the novel when she releases the pressure: instead she retains a continuous tension which heightens as the relationship builds to a terrible climax. Consequently this is not a novel to be approached faint-heartedly. It has a nightmarish quality yet with a clinical precision as every action, every step Mari takes is examined in such close detail you feel as though you can see each abrasion from the ropes the translator binds her with, the little drops of blood leaching through the skin. It is dark and vaguely terrifying, yet an absorbing and compelling read, and one that leaves you thinking for a long time afterwards.