Mari seems to be a relatively normal seventeen year old. Shy, with little experience of the world, she has dropped out of school to work at the coastal hotel her mother runs. But Mari’s relationship with a mysterious translator brings out a dark side of her that she had apparently had no knowledge of. After Yoko Ogawa’s lyrical, poignant The Housekeeper and the Professor, Hotel Iris comes as somewhat of a shock. That same calm, lyrical prose is now employed in the service of the depiction of a frankly sadomasochistic relationship.
Mari’s nameless partner, fifty years her senior, is a freelance translator of Russian letters and other odds and ends who lives on a nearby island. We are introduced to him in the first chapter, when he has a violent confrontation with a prostitute in one of the hotel’s rooms. The sound of his voice shouting “Shut up, whore” fascinates Mari. After a subsequent chance encounter in the street, the translator starts writing to Mari, and they agree to meet. There is a calm foreboding about the prose and the setting of their first meeting – the brilliance of the summer sky, the lively tourists, and the translator in his dark suit and tie.
Later, the translator loses his temper at a restaurant, and Mari hints darkly that she looks forward to the time that he will “give me an order, too.” So he does, when they take the ferry to his island home and he assaults her, tying her up and pawing at her body. He strikes her, and she asks for more. She sees herself in the mirror: “Reflected in the glass, I looked like a dying insect, like a chicken trussed up in the butcher’s storeroom.” But she seems to have no reservations as she mentally tells her mother that “her pretty little Mari had become the ugliest person in the whole world.”
At later encounters she is degraded further, forced to use her teeth to put the translator’s socks on, choked by a bloodstained scarf (perhaps the one the translator is rumored to have used to murder his wife years earlier), suspended from the ceiling and whipped with a riding crop, and photographed while tied up in all manner of positions. As Mari calmly notes, “Off the island, he never reproached me, accepting everything without complaint. In that room, however, surrounded by his Russian books, he forgave nothing.”
Mari’s mother knows nothing of any of this. Perpetually angry, with a weird fascination for Mari’s hair (which she dresses carefully every day), the mother comes off as a bit sinister. One of the mother’s friends, who also helps at the hotel and has a penchant for stealing random items from Mari and the hotel guests, gets wind of what’s happening. Mari and the friend reach an unspoken agreement to hide one another’s secrets. Everything changes for a time when the translator’s mute nephew visits. He and Mari have a tender, seemingly normal sexual encounter. But he soon leaves, and she and the translator quickly return to their ways: “Only when I was brutalized, reduced to a sack of flesh, could I know pure pleasure.” Without giving away too much, the suddenness with which their relationship comes to an end is of a piece with the matter-of-fact descriptions of what came before.
Mari doesn’t spend much, if any, time analyzing where her taste for masochism and defilement came from. To her it seems natural, beyond the need of thought. This is why the novel, for all the calm of its telling and the straightforwardness and even beauty of its writing (in this fine translation), is so disconcerting.