Hotel Iris

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Title: Hotel Iris (original title: ホテル・アイリス )

Writer: Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder)

Publishing House: Vintage Publishing

Date of Publication: April 7th 2011 (first published 1996)

Rating: 5 stars

‘’He first came to the Iris one day just before the beginning of the summer season. The rain had been falling since dawn. It grew heavier at dusk, and the sea was rough and grey.  A gust blew open, and rain soaked the carpet in the lobby. The shopkeepers in the neighbourhood had turned off their neon signs along the empty streets. A car passed from time to time, its headlights shining through the raindrops.’’

It is a suffocating summer in the Hotel Iris. For Mari, it is one more dull, frustrating holiday season performing chores for her tyrannical mother and the customers of dubious quality in the isolated seaside town. Everything changes when she meets a middle-aged translator and allows herself to be involved in a situation that is born by one man’s twisted personality and her own desperate need for…what? Freedom? Attention? In  my opinion, this is the most important question of the novel.

‘’There was still light in the sky, but the sun was sinking slowly into the darkness at the horizon. A pale moon rose over the seawall.

 The sea looked smaller from above. The island floated peacefully on the waves. The lights from the booths and rides blurred into a single bright mass, and at the centre, the band played the same tune over and over.’’

I won’t refer to the subject matter. Yes, it is unsettling. At times, it requires great resilience on the part of the reader. But I’ve never been bothered by such things and I’ve always said that Dark Theme + Exceptional Writer equals True Literature. Yoko Ogawa is the definition of this equation. Her themes are extraordinary and her writing creates impossible moments of beauty within terrible darkness. The descriptions of the town, the sea, the night lights, even the unusual heat wave that lasts for so long are serene, powerful, reflecting the unhealthy relationship between the two main characters.

The translator is a character that presents serious challenges. Is he a psychopath? A murderer? A typical example of a narcissistic, domineering misogynist? And what about our narrator? How did this young woman become so troubled? Is it a twisted version of the Oedipus Complex prompted by the untimely loss of her father? Is it the suffocating presence of her mother with her awful ways and heathen manners? Is it a dark, unbeatable urge in which she gives in? And if so, what does this tell us about our nature? What happens when we decide to lay down our dignity, our pride, our common sense for the sake of a twisted excitement that results in utter humiliation and degradation?

When a novel poses such questions, forcing the reader into an uncomfortable introspection, what else do we need as readers? What do we search for in a book? A fickle two-hour reading stand or a chance to contemplate on issues and themes that terrify us with their truths? Edgy, provocative, disturbing. To dismiss Yoko Ogawa’s novel on the grounds of the controversial theme is a view I cannot understand. Also, to the one who compared Hotel Iris to a series of… toilet paper for uneducated, horny individuals: You need to finish primary school. I am sorry, but there is a limit to stupidity.

‘’That day, however, it was overcast for the first time in weeks. Midday was no lighter than dawn. Layers of steel blue clouds obscured the sun – the same colour as the sea. It was an ominous colour. Not beautiful bit somehow pure, like the steady pulse of a calm breathing. A narrow strip of sky showed at the horizon, but the clouds seemed to weigh down on it, threatening to crash it at any moment. A gull looked up from a rock, hesitant to fly.’’