Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa

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Reading Hotel Iris, I couldn’t help but think about the significance of a translator. Not just in the metaphorical sense, either. Apparently in Japan, the literal standing of a translator is higher than the norm. Several months ago, I had attended a Japan Foundation event that introduced Monkey Business, a journal that translates and collects an assortment of new Japanese writing in various genres, even manga. One of the speakers talked about Motoyuki Shibata, Japan’s most famous translator and the man who conceptualized the idea for Monkey Business. It was a surprise for me to learn that the name Motoyuki Shibata was enough to make readers buy a book. I had never heard of an instance where the translator was as influential as the writer when it came to book-buying decisions. But as the speaker emphasized, this is simply how it is in Japan.

The translator at the center of Hotel Iris is nowhere near as illustrious. The story begins when the aforementioned translator causes a ruckus with a prostitute he picked up to spend the night with in a dilapidated hotel in a tourist seaside town. Mari, who works the front desk of the Hotel Iris and who is our first-person narrator, finds herself arrested by the sound of the translator’s voice. Soft and muted, but also deep and powerful. Seventeen-year old Mari is enchanted. She finds him and they begin a torrid relationship, complete with copious amounts of BDSM.

Mari is an interesting character. As a person, she is sweet and nice. Yet her fascination with the translator, a man past middle-age, is questionable at best and obsessive at worst. When there is gossip that the translator murdered his wife in the past, Mari finds herself insulted for his sake where an ordinary person would be spooked and rattled. Right off the bat, Mari is described as a girl who finds beauty in odd places. There is a flashback of her describing the pee of her cancer-ridden grandfather as “a beautiful shade.” The translator is clearly something else she finds beauty in. Both Mari and the translator are united by loneliness and the feeling that they are unloved.

Hotel Iris has a mysterious feel to its pages that I found beautiful. Some motives and actions are never properly explained. Because Hotel Iris is told from a first-person POV, we never truly get to know the translator, we never see things from his perspective. I was left wondering whether I was simply meant to savor this little novel rather than analyze it to death. The writing is delightful. Yoko Ogawa’s prose is pristine: clear, unpretentious, elegantly simple with no excess fat. If there is one translator involved in Hotel Iris who deserves praise, it is Stephen Snyder. It is to his credit that we are able to enjoy Ogawa’s style.

However, because Ogawa left many things unsaid I was unsure whether the relationship was meant to be exploitative or a romance. Ogawa neither condemns nor endorses. My personal inclination is to be uncomfortable with the younger woman/older man trope as it easily falls into abusive territory. And there were many reasons to be uneasy. While Mari and the translator’s first sexual encounter could be interpreted as Mari having an innate understanding of the translator, it can also come across as rape. There is a lack of consent I found disturbing. Closer and closer to the end, the translator started to be controlling: he withholds information from Mari and springs surprises without her knowing, expecting her to just roll with the punches. In a way, Hotel Iris isn’t really a romance but a coming of age story. Mari is young, with little prospects and a lack of love and experience. Her involvement with the translator could be seen as an initiation into adulthood, or maybe a search for excitement in a lackluster life.

The major weakness of Hotel Iris, I thought, is its ending. I remember thinking, ‘Gosh, there’s hardly any pages left, how is Ogawa going to wrap everything up?’ Turns out, she couldn’t. The ending is really rushed, abrupt, and anticlimactic with loose threads everywhere. It would have been better to lengthen and develop the conclusion more. The ending dragged down my enjoyment of Hotel Iris, even though I started out really liking the novel for its pure, unclouded writing.

Reading Hotel Iris serves as a microcosm of my experience with Japanese fiction: beautifully written, even if I don’t always understand what’s going on. Even if Hotel Iris isn’t the best example of Japanese literature I’ve read, I’m still excited to read more Ogawa and explore more in the genre.

Those interested in the journal Monkey Business, here is their tumblr page.

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17 thoughts on “Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa

  1. It has been a while since the last time I pay a visit to your blog and I was really amazed by how you could manage to read all these books in the past few months.

    This review is just make me want to read more Japanese literature. Beside Murakami’s I have also had several works of Jun-ichiro Tanizaki and Kobo Abe.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Sound of Waves, Tarian Bumi, and Hotel Iris are all short. Each of them are under 200 pages. Hahaha, so it looks like I’ve read a lot, but I really haven’t. I’m actually planning on writing about the strengths and weaknesses of short novels next.

      I don’t have any Kobo Abe but I do have some unread Tanizakis on my shelves. Which ones do you have?

      Thanks for visiting my blog again! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I was also fascinated when you highlighted the importance of translators in Japanese literature. What I learned from reading Murakami’s works, translating Japanese into English could be a tricky task. Not only because Japanese has a more complex structure than English, but also usually Japanese words have different meanings and functions in a sentence or paragraph. Thus, it is undoubtedly the major role of every translators, to translate word by word perfectly without leaving the authors’ purpose of their works.

        I have a copy of Tanazaki’s “The Key” and Abe’s “The Face of Another” which I bought very cheaply from Periplus 😀
        I think those might be good starts into Japanese world of fictions.

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      2. Translators deserve major appreciation for sure. They don’t just translate words, but also an author’s style, prose, voice, tone, rhythm, basically everything writing entails. Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, Murakami’s trusted translators seem to have earned well-deserved respect.

        I’ve read “The Key.” It’s interesting, with a twist near the end. But it isn’t great, in my opinion. Never read Kobo Abe though. Be sure to review “The Face of Another” when you do so I can get a better idea on what it’s about!

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  2. ‘beautifully written, even if I don’t always understand what’s going on’ – exactly true! Couldn’t agree more, but that’s what I love.
    (I am therefore sometimes glad many of the books are rather short…)
    I’ve read Ogawa’s Housekeeper and the Professor and have a copy of Revenge so while I am keen to read Hotel Iris I may not get to it for this year’s Japanese Literature Challenge.

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  3. You might enjoy Ogawa’s short story collection, Revenge. I agree her writing is very spare and it enhances the startling unpleasantness of her stories at times ( but equally makes them fascinating). I have been wondering about her novels since I read the collection — thanks for the good review!

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    1. What a coincidence! A friend of mine has bought me Revenge and I will pick it up from her soon. Very curious about that one as it is advertised as horror and I love the genre.

      “her writing is very spare and it enhances the startling unpleasantness of her stories at times” — you are so right! It’s astonishing how she could describe Hotel Iris’ setting with such purity when it is really a crumbling and decaying town.

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  4. My favorite book of Ogawa’s is The Housekeeper and the Professor. She is an amazing author, in that each of her books are so very different from each other, but also beautifully written. (Revenge freaked me out!)

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    1. I still have The Diving Pool and Revenge to read on my shelves. But I will have to check out The Housekeeper and the Professor now after the recommendations on this post.

      Thinking of reading Kawabata’s Snow Country or Kirino’s Grotesque for the Challenge next. Have you read any of them?

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