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Yōko Ogawa: ホテル・アイリス (Hotel Iris)

Mari is a seventeen-year old Japanese woman. Her family have long owned the Hotel Iris, a small hotel in the distinctly seedy and cheaper end of a Japanese seaside resort. However most of the family have died off leaving only Mari and her mother, helped by a friend of the mother, known only as the maid. Indeed Mari is the only character in this book to be named. Mari has dropped out of high school to help her mother. Her mother is clearly something of a tyrant, at least as far as her daughter is concerned, always shouting at her and complaining, and giving Mari little time to herself. Mari has no friends of either sex.

The book opens with a fracas. Mari is at the desk when she hears shouting and banging from Room 202. A woman comes rushing out, shouting at a man still in the room. He calls her, apparently accurately, a prostitute, and she responds in kind. Eventually the mother intervenes and both are ordered to leave while the mother apologises to the guests.

The hotel’s main season is the three months of summer which had not started, meaning that there were fewer guests and Mari has a bit more time to herself. Out one day, two weeks after the incident in Room 202, she sees the man while out doing errands for her mother and decides to follow him. At one shop he behaves quite aggressively. There is an island off the coast of the town and a boat runs regularly to the island. The man goes to the waiting room for the boat. Suddenly he speaks to Mari and asks why she has been following him. He has recognised her from the hotel. He apologises for his behaviour in the hotel. He tells her that he lives on the island and works as a translator from Russian.

A few days later she receives a letter from him reiterating his apologies and asking her to meet him in town. He tells her that he is translating a novel from the Russian called Marie. I assumed it was Pushkin’s novel of that name but, as we gradually learn of the plot , which is decidedly raunchier than Pushkin, it becomes clear that it is an entirely imaginary work.

She does meet him in the town and learns that the novel is merely a personal project and that he earns his living translating commercial and technical documents. He also tells her that he is a widower and that his wife died thirty-five years ago. (We later learn that he is sixty-seven, i.e. fifty years older than Mari). We learn that he has a nephew (by marriage – son of his late wife’s younger sister). Mari tells her mother that she has been helping a lonely old lady.

The next time he invites her to a meal at a posh restaurant but when they arrive the restaurant finds no record of his alleged booking and he makes an unpleasant fuss. The situation is not helped by another guest – the prostitute from that night.

He offers to take her to his house on the island, which she accepts. He starts kissing her and then brutally sexually molests her. She seems to enjoy it. Despite the busy summer period he continues to write to her – she burns the letters – and they continue their decidedly kinky encounters. On the island, he could do what he wanted with my body, and my soul., she comments.

The maid suspects something is going on, particularly when she comes acrsss Mari reading one of his letters but Mari is able to blackmail her into silence.

One day when she visits, she finds his nephew (by marriage) there. The nephew cannot talk but communicates by writing notes on a piece of paper. She will later meet him on the beach while the translator is doing an urgent job. The nephew fills her in on the translator’s life and, inevitably they have a brief tryst. When the translator finds out, she must be punished.

I must say that while I expect odd from Ogawa, I do find the idea of a sixty-seven year old man sexually abusing a seventeen year old woman and she seemingly enjoying it most distasteful. Yes, the point, in part, is that she receives no attention from anyone except her aggressive mother and she has no life of her own and kinky and abusive sex is presumably a way of recognising her as somebody that attracts attention, albeit in an unpleasant way. Moreover when they are off the island and when he writes to her he is charming and almost loving. The nephew offers a very brief respite from kinky sex but his stay is brief. Nevertheless I cannot say that I enjoyed this book or would recommend it.

Publishing history

First published in 1996 by Gakken
First English translation by Harvill Secker in 2010
Translated by Stephen Snyder