Once again, Yōko Ogawa has mesmerized me with her simple yet wondrously enigmatic narrative. Reading Hotel Iris, I couldn’t help but let myself drowning in its every line that I wasn’t capable of just passing through the plot without scrutinizing what actually happened. I honestly didn’t think Ogawa set the atmosphere to be so nuanced on purpose, and yet it managed to flip my emotion endlessly from down flat and calm to violently churning and disgusted. Ogawa really has it in her to create a story which gets the reader reeling and thinking even when they don’t realize it.
Set in a seaside little town, the story of Hotel Iris begins as Mari, a 17-year-old girl, recounts the first time she meets a strange old man whom she knows to be, and henceforth calls, the translator. It is just a day before the summer arrives and the translator takes a lodging at the title hotel apparently to spend the night with a prostitute. But things go wrong as suddenly the middle-aged loose woman starts shouting and screaming names at the translator, leaving him to bear the shame and pay the rent and more. Mari should be afraid of him, or at least disgusted by the sight, but she feels none of those. Instead, she feels attracted and enchanted by the voice of the translator, which radiates dominance and power yet so soft and deep that she finds it lulling. At this point the reader must be starting to think that there is something wrong with Mari, for from then on we can see the girl and the translator forge a complicated, inexplicable relationship nobody nor nothing can explain. They meet in secret, with Mari stealing times between her grueling duties at her family-owned hotel, and involve in lurid actions of unusual, bondage kind of sex. But what they have together doesn’t only go as far as physical intimacy, for there are also affection and “otherworldly” love. Somehow Mari knows that they cannot stay together the way they want it, but she also realizes that there is definitely no way out for their situation.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that both Mari and the translator are particularly unique characters I’ve never encountered in any fiction books before. But they do have complexity of their own, one that gets the reader wondering, “There must be something wrong with them, but what?” It is not my first time having a taste of something about bondage sex with layered characters, but these ones created by Ogawa are really mind-boggling because she doesn’t seem to present them to the reader deliberately as troubled persons. Reading them through, we will only think that they are just ordinary people, a young girl and an old man we see everyday in the street. However, once they shift to their secluded world, they sort of change all of a sudden into people we do not recognize anymore, people with totally opposite natures. It is not merely about a quiet, obedient girl versus a sexually inexperienced virgin eager for some humiliating, thrilling sex; nor is it merely about an awkward, seems-so-normal old man versus an anger-ridden dominant. There is something more to their characterizations, something more than meets the eye, and it is trapped in the shore road they tread on every time they feel like bringing their intricate love to the territory of pain and pleasure.
Though not as cryptic and eerie as all novellas in The Diving Pool, Hotel Iris is still surprising in some ways, especially when Yōko Ogawa shows Mari’s daring to pursue what becomes her heart’s desire and indulge her passion for commanding love behind her pitiful helplessness. The narrative is just as simple, and doesn’t really have any twists nor turns, but shocking all the same. On the surface, it seems so smooth without so much as a bump that the reader can read it easily and enjoyably, but when we look at it more closely, there are more unpleasant moments than we actually want to know. Ogawa seems to want the reader to see, even though not understand completely, the nature of Mari and the translator’s relationship—what happens between them and what they have together—through the melancholy narration voiced by Mari herself and the gloomy love letters written by the translator, which in turn compile the whole storyline. The sex scenes might be a bit disturbing for those who never read anything like this before, and way too horrible for those who find BDSM thing quite abnormal. Be that as it may, I think Ogawa can handle them pretty elegantly that they don’t look too much vulgar nor terrible to my liking, and feel rather saddening instead. The way to the ending is too short in my opinion, but to be fair, it’s only a novella so no one would expect Ogawa to prolong it in any way. Besides, the conclusion is what I expect from a story like this.
Overall, Hotel Iris by Yōko Ogawa is a truly marvelous work. I wouldn’t say that it’s flawless, but it’s up there. By this book, Ogawa has really made me fall in love with her, not because she is a brave author who dares to write something disturbing, but because she can do it with clever elegance.