Monday, 2 May 2011

hotel iris [yoko ogawa]

Ogawa's short novel is set in a Japanese coastal resort town. Which coast it is set on I don't know, but the notion that all those fictional characters who participate in the novel, and the fictional town itself, might no longer exist, adds piquancy to a slight but finely written story of depravity and delinquency. One of the comments in the blurb, by Hilary Mantel, says - "I admire any writer who dares to work on this uneasy territory". This territory being the sexuality of a seventeen year old girl who enjoys, that being the operative word, a fraught and to-most-people's eyes abusive sexual relationship with a man three times her age.

There's much here that seems to resonate with foreign notions of the Japanese psyche. The use of sex as both a complex outlet for power games and a means to excavate the subject's confused interior landscape. Mari, the protagonist, desires the humiliation that her lover, the Russian translator subjects her to. Here is the pertinence of Mantel's comment. It is the kind of book which it might be said could only be published by a female writer, in this day and age. If a man were to suggest that Mari wanted this 'abusive' relationship, exploring it from her point of view, it is hard to think he would be taken seriously and would in all likelihood be read as exploitative. However, in Ogawa's hands, the story is strangely convincing. Mari is never a victim: she remains a level-headed appraiser of her situation, no matter how dangerous. We are in similar territory to the recent film of Norwegian Wood: just because you're going through something difficult and complex doesn't make for an inevitably tragic narrative. The resilience of youth enables people seeking experience to embrace strangeness; a strangeness which society, (in Hotel Iris denoted by the townspeople and Mari's family), cannot contemplate as anything but alien and reprehensible.

The book's effectiveness is not founded on its more salacious material, but on the way it gets under its protagonist's skin. The whole world is coming alive for Mari, and the translator is but one part of that world. At times the book's town feels reminiscent of Prout's Normandy seaside holiday resort; the seaside, with its unique rhythms, is a great place to grow up, to realise the possibilities of the adult world. Ogawa's prose offers precise descriptions and is unafraid of surreal detail (a plague of fishes, a lunch of multi-coloured soups). Hotel Iris is a book that succeeds in exploring the most provocative of worlds without really being provocative at all. By reducing the salacious to the mundane, she seems to suggest that we shouldn't over-emphasise deviance or sexuality; normality abounds in even the most rarified of situations.

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