I was about to lock up the cash register and turn out the lights in the lobby, when I heard something heavy hitting the floor above, followed by a woman’s scream. It was a very long scream – so long that I started to wonder before it ended whether she wasn’t laughing instead.
“Filthy pervert!” The scream stopped at last, and a woman came flying out of Room 202. “You disgusting old man!” She caught her foot on a seam in the carpet and fell on the landing, but she went on hurling insults at the door of the room. “What do you think I am? You’re not fit to be with a woman like me! Scumbag! Impotent bastard!”
Hotel Iris opens with this woman – a prostitute – leaving the hotel following a tryst with a man. Our narrator is 17-year-old, Mari, who’s working on the reception of her mother’s hotel, the Hotel Iris. Ogawa sets the tone of the novel with this scene – it is to be sexual and disturbing. Mari’s reaction to the scene alerts us to the fact her view may be different to those around her and indeed, the reader’s:
“Shut up, whore.” The voice seemed to pass through us, silencing the whole hotel. It was powerful and deep, but with no trace of anger. Instead, it was almost serene, like a hypnotic note from a cello or a horn…It occurred to me that I had never heard such a beautiful voice giving an order. It was calm and imposing, with no hint of indecision. Even the word “whore” was somehow appealing.
The man is past middle age, wearing a dark brown suit and white shirt. He remains calm and unembarrassed throughout the episode.
A fortnight later, Mari sees the man again. This time he is buying toothpaste at a shop in the town centre and she decides to follow him. Eventually he confronts her and she discovers that he lives on the island just off the coast of the town. He tells her he’s a translator of Russian.
Mari has a tempestuous relationship with her mother:
If Mother is so intent on paying me compliments, it might be because she doesn’t really love me very much. In fact, the more she tells me how pretty I am, the uglier I feel. To be honest, I have never once thought of myself as pretty.
She still does my hair every morning. She sits me down at the dressing table and takes hold of my ponytail, forcing me to keep very still. When she starts in with the brush, I can barely stand it, but if I move my head even the least bit, she tightens her grip.
When the translator writes to Mari and asks her to meet him – which she does – and they begin a relationship, it makes sense that she is turned on by him commanding her, causing her pain while forcing her to act out sexual scenarios and being verbally abuse towards her.
There are some incredibly disturbing scenes in Hotel Iris, ones that made me wish I could rescue Mari. It seems to me that Ogawa uses her as an example of young women who are expected to care about their looks, dress a certain way, act out scenes they’ve seen on pornographic films to satisfy men’s desires. However, Ogawa refuses to make Mari the victim – she comments numerous times on how much she likes to be told/hurt/abused by this man – and leaves the reader to question whether her behaviour is her own choice.
Hotel Iris is a challenging read – it’s definitely the darkest of Ogawa’s work I’ve read. I’d be interested to know what others think of it.
Thanks to Vintage for the review copy.