Friday, March 16, 2012

Hotel Iris, by Yoko Ogawa

Last year, I relished The Housekeeper and the Professor, so I quickly downloaded this novel when I saw it. I read the former book on a whim, with no preconceptions.  Ms. Ogawa immediately exploded any preconceptions with which I might have begun the latter. It's got no mathematics whatever. Unlike the housekeeper who follows her employer into the numinous, pure realm of numbers, the teen-aged narrator of Hotel Iris follows a much older man into a psychologically grimy affair of sexual dominance and humiliation.

The Hotel Iris is a run-down guest-house on the outskirts of a Japanese seaside holiday town. The building and the family that runs it appear to be decaying in tandem.
And then it was grandfather’s turn. He died two years ago. He got cancer in his pancreas or his gallbladder—somewhere in his stomach—and it spread to his bones and his lungs and his brain. He suffered for almost six months, but he died in his own bed. We had given him one of the good mattresses, from a guest room, but only after it had broken a spring. Whenever he turned over in bed, it sounded like someone stepping on a frog...
Grandfather suffered all the time, but the hour just before dawn was especially bad. His groans echoed in the dark, mingling with the croaking of the mattress. We kept the shutters closed, but the guests still complained about the noise. “I’m terribly sorry,” Mother would tell them, her voice sickly sweet, her pen tapping nervously on the counter. “All those cats seem to be in heat at the same time.”
Ogawa draws a superb portrait of a town with all the superficial merriment that comes with heavy tourist traffic. Meanwhile, there is the reality of the people who live there year-round, particularly those who don't cater to the most affluent guests.
The streets were filled with people enjoying their holidays. Parasols opened, fountains frothed, champagne corks popped, and fireworks lit up the night sky. The restaurants, bars, hotels, and excursion boats, the souvenir shops, the marinas—and even our Iris—were dressed up for summer. Though in the case of the Iris, this meant little more than rolling down the awnings on the terrace, turning up the lights in the lobby, and putting out the sign with the high-season rates.
The narrator's mother feigns surprise and outrage when there is a late-night disturbance in one of the Iris' rooms. A half-naked woman runs down the hall shrieking obscenities, and the man who had been sharing the room with her hurls her shoes after her, bellowing, "Shut up, whore!"  The hotelier scolds the man, demands payment and his departure and tries to placate other awakened guests. The man exits the hotel with a surprising amount of dignity, depositing a stack of bills on the reception desk as he leaves. It's just another night at the Hotel Iris.

The mother is trying to hold things together at the hotel. Trying to keep up appearances. Her daughter's appearance is one of her most cherished prizes. She is fanatical about brushing and oiling Mari's hair.
Since I was a little girl, Mother has praised my appearance to anyone who would listen. Her favorite customers are the big tippers, but the ones who tell her I’m beautiful run a close second, even when they aren’t particularly sincere. “Have you ever seen such transparent skin? It’s almost scary the way you can see right through it. She has the same big, dark eyes and long lashes she did when she was a baby. When I took her out, people were constantly stopping me to tell me how cute she was. And there was even a sculptor who made a statue of her—it won first prize in some show.” Mother has a thousand ways to brag about my looks, but half of them are lies. The sculptor was a pedophile who nearly raped me.
Mari, is out running an errand when she spots the man who had fought with his whore at the hotel. As if entranced, she follows him. When he reaches the ferry dock and waits there, he turns to speak to her. He is much older; he lives on an island and translates texts from Russian. In a strangely formal way, he asks Mari if he might write to her. And thus begins their affair. At first it's an avuncular relationship, but the moment it becomes sexual, it's all about bondage, humiliation and sado-masochism. The transition is jarring.

Mari, it turns out, is aching for someone to mortify her flesh, almost as an antidote to her mother's preening and boasting. Her only sexual attraction to the translator is as someone who can humiliate her. When she looks at his aging skin, she is gratified. It's what she deserves.
But I wanted this body I worshiped to be ugly—only then could I taste my disgrace. Only when I was brutalized, reduced to a sack of flesh, could I know pure pleasure.
The Housekeeper and the Professor was a quirky and lovely little novel, and this one is quirky and sinister. The translator makes Humbert Humbert seem wholesome by comparison, and Mari's state of mind is as inaccessible to me as Fermat's Theorem. I admired this book, and it deserves another read, maybe in a year or two. 

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