Yoko Ogawa’s 2006 novel, translated in 2010 by Stephen Snyder. I read a Picador paperback from the library.
3 out of 5 stars.
Times Read: 1
Seventeen-year-old Mari enters a violent relationship with a sixty-seven-year-old translator.
Parts of Hotel Iris are much better than 3 stars but the things that bother me are enough to drag my overall rating down. Ogawa’s clean, simple style is incredibly intelligent and readable. But the central relationship is disturbing and there are upsetting, graphic scenes of sexual violence.
I am not against BDSM between consenting adults with established trust. But Mari never verbally consents to the relationship; up until the last sex scene between her and the translator, she pleads, “Stop! (…) Please stop! You’re hurting me!” (p.156). Her calm mental narrative tells us that she does not want it to stop, that she is taking pleasure in the abuse, but by never verbalizing it, this story reinforces the terrible idea that women actually mean yes when they say no. Mari and the translator have no safe word, no way to communicate consent. It’s a frighteningly unhealthy relationship.
Many of Ogawa’s protagonists are disturbed, though they never question their actions or mental health. They are what they are and do not apologize or wonder about the reasons. It’s fascinating.
Other aspects of Hotel Iris are incredible; images and scenes will stay with me. The prose is so smooth, the images so vivid and strong, that I also have to give huge credit to Ogawa’s translator, Stephen Snyder.
An overgrown dogwood, a zelkova tree, and some weeds.
Zelkova is a genus of six species of deciduous trees in the elm family Ulmaceae, native to southern Europe, and southwest and eastern Asia. They vary in size from shrubs to large trees up to 115 feet tall.
I have never seen my mother dance. But it makes me a little queasy to imagine her calves shaking, her feet spilling out of her shoes, her makeup running with sweat, a strange man’s hand at her waist….
He noticed a cabbage moth hovering around the flowers.
Mamestra brassicae, or the cabbage moth, is primarily known as a pest that is responsible for severe crop damage of a wide variety of plants species. While known colloquially as the cabbage moth, the name is a misnomer as the species is known to feed on many fruits, vegetables, and other crops.
I churned my fork in the potato salad, less upset by the idea that the translator might be a murderer than by the fact that they felt free to talk this way about him.
Her jaw is pointed, her arms and legs are like twigs, and her ribs stick out – a body suited for stolen underwear.
“I’m afraid I won’t be permitted to die but be forced to wander eternally at the ends of the earth.”
“Have you ever seen a body?”
“What?” he blurted out. He had been wiping his mouth with his handkerchief.
“A dead body.”
“You mean a corpse?” he said.
“No, not a ‘corpse.’ Not someone who lived out his life and died slowly of old age. A body! Someone who never saw it coming, who never had a chance.”
“Even here, I feel as though we’re the only two people in the world,” I said.
“We’re always alone. We need no one else.”
It seemed as though summer would go on forever, as though the seasons had stopped changing.
I was being strangled, but oddly I felt that he was crushing my eyes in his hands.
The stories came bubbling out of him like baby spiders hatching from their eggs, each episode giving rise to another memory, anecdote, or tirade against an imagined enemy (…)
But the translator did not seem to care whether we were listening. He simply went on hatching baby spiders into the void in front of him, apparently unable to stop until there were no more.
“Everything will work out,” he wrote. “Don’t be afraid of breezes and scarves.”
Our lips met without hesitation, as though we had each decided long ago that it would happen.
If you are able and willing to read a story with an unhealthy sexual relationship at its core (of which there are three graphic scenes), Hotel Iris rewards with beautiful prose and images. For fans of Ogawa, it’s fascinating to look at this alongside The Housekeeper and the Professor, which is also about love between a younger woman and older man, but is a heartwarming family-friendly novel where Hotel Iris is borderline pornographic.
If you haven’t read Ogawa yet, start with Revenge.
Next week is a good one… holy heck, is it a good one: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.