The Translator and His Charge

I confess that I’ve become unaccustomed to reading erotic fiction. Maybe because my erotics are not yours and vice versa. Nor can I say that when I began reading Yoko Ogawa’s Hotel Iris that I was pleasantly surprised, though I’ve been aware for some time that the Japanese have a rather unique hardcore pornography business especially with graphic novels. Well, Hotel Iris is neither a graphic novel nor a hardcore narrative, though its readers may indeed be limited to a rather specialized audience. Ogawa has published two earlier novels, both widely admired, but I cannot tell you if the sex in either of those books also sizzles as it does here. I have some suspicions, but I’m unwilling to make any speculations.

The incident that propels Hotel Iris happens one night. The hotel—managed by seventeen-year-old Mari and her mother in a remote Japanese beach town—is forced to eject an older man who has had a noisy prostitute in his room. There’s a commotion in the hall, as the prostitute leaves first, yelling “Filthy pervert!” at the male occupant. In the ensuring minutes when the hotel is in a state of uproar, she also calls him an “Impotent bastard!” Then she flees the Iris Hotel and Mari’s mother informs the elderly gentleman that he also must vacate the premises.

There’s nothing especially unique about this scene. I’m certain that it’s a frequent enough occurrence in hotels around the world. But what becomes the catalyst for the action that follows is the gentleman’s response to the prostitute: “Shut up, whore.” Mari subsequently remarks, “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.”

“I turned to find the man standing on the landing. He was past middle age, on the verge of being old. He wore a pressed white shirt and dark brown pants, and he held a jacket of the same material in his hand. Though the woman was completely disheveled, he was not even breathing heavily. Nor did he seem particularly embarrassed. Only the few tangled hairs on his forehead suggested that anything was out of the ordinary.” In short, Mr. Cool. But here’s the kicker: “It occurred to me that I had never heard such a beautiful voice giving an order.” Mari’s father is deceased; her mother orders her around every day—telling her what work she has to do at the hotel.

What follows is somewhat predictable but also startling. Some days later, Mari encounters the man, who is a translator, in the village and the two of them begin talking. Always, she is aware of his voice. He doesn’t live on the mainland but on a near-by island and all too soon she goes with him to his house where she is stripped, tied up, and abused in all manner of humiliating ways, though the translator remains fully clothed in his dark suit. Mari follows all of his derogatory commands, not protesting but enjoying the odd, one-sided activities—not just this first time but on several other instances when the translator continues to abuse her in increasingly painful ways. On one occasion after he has tied her up and made her grovel like an animal, he takes hundreds of photos of her, but those photographs do not appear to be the object of his dominating manner.

Outside the premises of the translator’s house on the island—on the mainland where the two of them frequently meet—the man is loving, protective, almost a surrogate father for her. Mari often thinks of her own father who died violently when she was eight years old. She also learns that the translator’s wife died from a violent accident many years earlier. Perhaps she was murdered. Yet Mari makes no attempt to end the encounters. She could stop returning to the translator’s house, but she prefers that he “punish” her.

On one occasion when she returns to his house and he is in the midst of completing a translation, he pays her no attention. “I had to be patient until he finished translating the letter. But I knew that soon he would be paying such careful attention to me. Only with me did his old, withered body come to life. The fingers clutching the pen would grasp my breast, the lips pursed in thought would probe between my ribs, the feet hidden under the desk would trample my face.”

The gap between them is fifty years. The force that connects them is often as sticky as glue. And the translation by Stephen Snyder is always compelling.

Hotel Iris
By Yoko Ogawa
Trans. by Stephen Snyder
Picador, 164 pp., $14.00

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.





Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.