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[512] Hotel Iris – Yoko Ogawa

” 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]

[508] The Housekeeper and the Professor – Yoko Ogawa

” I remembered something the Professor had told me, something a mathematician with a difficult name once said: ‘Math has proven the existence of God, but it is absolute and without contradiction; but the devil must exist as well, because we cannot prove it.’ The Professor’s body had been consumed by the devil of mathematics. ” (Ch.6, p.100)

She (the characters in this novel are nameless) is an astute single mother. When she answers the bulletin for a job at the agency, she is informed that her prospective employer has already rid of nine housekeepers. Although the job itself is not complicated, and she is used to absurd demands in her previous employs, nothing in her experience has prepared her for working for the professor. A brilliant mathematician, the professor’s memory stopped in 1975, when a car accident robbed him of his ability to remember any new memories for more than eighty minutes.

Soon after I began working for the Professor, I realized that he talked about numbers whenever he was unsure of what to say or do. Numbers were also his way of reaching out to the world. They were safe, a source of comfort. (Ch.1, p.7)

One can imagine the tough position the housekeeper is in: to the Professor, whose memory lasted only 80 minutes, she is always a new housekeeper he is meeting for the first time, and so every morning he is appropriately shy and reserved. But once she gets the hang of his routine (and temperament) and adapts to the rhythm of the work, a lasting friendship ensues. The Professor dotes on the housekeeper’s 10-year-old boy, whom he nicknames “Root” because the flat top of his head reminds the mathematician of the square-root sign.

Even when he was at a critical point with a math problem, he still seemed to have unlimited time for Root. He was always delighted when Root asked a question, no matter what the subject; and he seemed convinced that children’s questions were much more important than those of an adult . . . the Professor also showed concern for Root’s physical well-being and watched over him with care. (Ch.7, p.129)

The bond between the Professor, the housekeeper, and her son grows strong and defies the conventions that define a family. Here Ogawa truly shines by showing how families are composed, and how it doesn’t matter whom it’s made of. Japanese literature is abound with characters that are either social outcasts or loners. Ogawa creates a heart-warming story out of the unusual connection of them. The friendship survives even the run-in with the over-protective, cynical sister-in-law who suspects of the housekeeper’s ulterior motive. At once uplifting and poignant, the novel asks whether over immediate experiences are more important than our memories, since memories inevitably fade.

180 pp. Picador. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]