Yoko Ogawa

Hotel Iris is an atmospheric novel set in a seaside town in Japan. Mari, a shy seventeen-year-old girl, works in her mother’s hotel, where she is ordered around like a servant and her life is tightly controlled. The novel begins when a middle-aged man and a prostitute cause a scene at the hotel one night and are asked to leave. Mari is attracted by the man’s voice. When she sees him in town the next day, she follows him and they begin talking. The book is about the intense relationship between them.

Hotel Iris is written very simply but is compelling and vivid. It describes how Mari is drawn to the violence and degradation of her relationship with the man, who is never named but only referred to as the ‘translator’ (since he earns a living by translating from Russian into Japanese). Mari lives in a world of cruelty. Her mother and the maid at the hotel (none of the characters are named, other than Mari herself) treat her terribly, and she is forced to rely on her own wits to exercise some power over them in return.

I think this book is very much about beauty and ugliness. The only way in which Mari’s mother expresses anything positive about her daughter is through boasting about her appearance to anyone who will listen, and yet this is merely another way in which she exercises her control: ‘the more she tells me how pretty I am, the uglier I feel’. Mari gains a strange satisfaction from feeling unattractive when with the translator; she constantly feels her body has been reduced to something ugly or her ugliness has been revealed. This seems to free her from her mother: ‘In my heart, I told her that her pretty little Mari had become the ugliest person in the whole world’. The novel itself contains scenes of ugliness, the kind of disturbing thoughts that appear in dreams. It is a series of mysterious scenes and macabre images, like the boy who fell from a boat and drowned in the sea: ‘It wouldn’t have taken long for the fish to clean everything away, and now his bones glowed faintly at the bottom of the sea, the two empty eyeholes staring up at the translator and me as we made our way to the island’.

The island is where the translator lives, reached by a boat from the seaside resort. When Mari goes to his home, it is like entering a different world, where each of them obeys different rules and impulses than on the mainland. ‘Off the island, he never reproached me, accepting everything without complaint. In that room, however, surrounded by his Russian books, he forgave nothing.’ The island is separate and remote from normal life. The translator fears he doesn’t exist, he’s being ‘sucked silently into some hole in the atmosphere, to disappear altogether… no one will mourn me, or even so much as notice that I’m gone.’ In fact, he seems to find it difficult to leave traces in the world; Mari must burn his letters so her mother doesn’t find them, and one of his translations simply disappears.

I found I could clearly visualise the seaside town where this book was set, almost as if it were a film. I think the author must have great skill and imagination to achieve this effect with such a simple writing style. The novel has a timelessness, and it’s difficult to say exactly when it takes place. There are recurrent mythical characters, such as Iris (the rainbow goddess after whom the hotel is named), the stone statue of a boy playing the harp in the run-down garden of the hotel, and the real-life boy who plays the accordion under the flower clock in the main square, who all add to the atmosphere of strangeness and mystery. The setting is very oppressive at times, and the sea and sky, which in most circumstances create a sense of freedom, seem suffocating.