” His mouth probed my legs. Even his breath made my nerves cry out. I felt as though I was being torn apart, split between fear of what he would do next and the desire to be shamed even more. But out of the tear, pleasure came bubbling like blood from a wound. ” (Ch.4, p.52)
Unlike The Housekeeper and the Professor, which delineates the charm of an unlikely friendship, Hotel Iris retreats into darker territory by which contemporary Japanese literature is known to me. The book follows an unusual love story—between 17-year-old Mari, the daughter of a hotel hostess and a 60-something widower who translates from Russian. They meet under the most peculiar circumstance” the distressed widower is having a noisy altercation with a prostitute who calls him a pervert. It’s in this lively opening scene that the old man, neatly dressed in shirt and tie, lingers in Mari’s mind. His voice, calm and imposing, “like a hypnotic note from a cello or a horn.” (3) She decides to follow him when she spots him in a shop a fortnight later.
No, everyone dies. This is something else, like being drawn toward an invincible chasm. I feel I’m being singled out for some sort of punishment . . . I pay these women to help me escape this fear. The desires of the flesh confirm my existence. (Ch.5, p.65-66)
And so this affair begins. It’s one based on bondage, dominance/submission, and sado-masochistic violence. In Mari the translator fulfills his sense of existence. The two loners, despite difference in age, finds mutual affection and sexual fulfillment in each other. One lives in an almost deserted island with minimal amenity and the other trapped working in a crumbling seaside hotel managed by her controlling, parsimonious mother. The arrival of a nephew who will reveal the circumstances by which the translator’s wife died complicates the matter.
Hotel Iris goes into what nost contemporary authors dare not to go. It’s not the most original work but Ogawa manages this audacious territory with sharp focus, bringing us scenes of breath-taking disturbance. The physicality of the relationship is disturbing because it’s not how we perceive love and intimacy. But the novel shows the length to which human beings can go, sexual speaking, to obtain reassurance of love and one’s sense of existence. This is a dreamlike novella of sexual dependency and damage.
164 pp. Picador. Paper. [Read/
Skim/ Toss] [ Buy/Borrow]