Review: Hotel Iris

I read Hotel Iris because of Jo and Vishy’s reviews, and I wanted to read some more Japanese literature. A couple of years ago I discovered Banana Yoshimoto’s works and she has since become one of my favorite authors, but somehow I never got around to trying other Japanese writers’ works (except for one Murakami). So this is your chance to convince me of that one Japanese book I simply have to read! 🙂

Hotel Iris tells the story of a sadomasochistic relationship between 17-year-old Mari and a significantly older man, only referred to as the translator. She lives with her mother in their seaside hotel, Hotel Iris. Mari’s word is very small and for the most part reduced to the hotel in which she slaves away and  which she hardly ever leaves.  She gets glimpses of the world through the guests, and one night she witnesses a prostitute being thrown out of a room and loudly insulting the guest, an older man who strikes Mari as utterly dignified and entrances her with his commanding voice. She follows him and falls in love with a man who sexually dominates and humiliates her.

Thanks to Jo, I was sufficiently warned about the sado-masochist context but apart from Mari’s age I didn’t really find the topic that disturbing. The real taboo here for me was the relationship between a young inexperienced girl and an older experienced man. Despite the fact that Ogawa depicts the translator as reserved and even somewhat shy in his behaviour toward Mari in public, their sexual relationship reinforces the typical power relations of gender and age. However, Ogawa exclusively depicts this relationship through the eyes of Mari and so we only get one side of the story, and Mari is not prone to reflecting on her life.  And the introduction of the translator’s nephew questions the assumption that Mari is the one who is powerless and dependent on the translator. For all that Ogawa chose such a complex topic, she does not seem to be overly interested in exploring its moral grey areas. Her characters are stripped down to their essentials, as is her prose style. I wouldn’t really recommend this work to people who value complex characters,over everything else, but Ogawa does make up for it with atmosphere. Perhaps mood and characterization go hand in hand here; to achieve such atmospheric writing, you have to create characters that seem to float through the narrative and remain elusive.

I very much enjoyed reading Hotel Iris and Ogawa introduces interesting themes and topics, such as power relations, eroticism and death, violence and beauty. The problem is that she does not make use of them, or where she does it’s kept superficial. I think that a more reflective main character could have done a lot for this novel. Still, it was a very interesting read, it was fascinating how Ogawa manages to create a dreamy atmosphere through a sparse prose style. Which Ogawa work should I turn to next?


Other thoughts:


Vishy’s blog