Hotel Iris is almost certain to surprise readers who know Yoko Ogawa only through The Housekeeper and the Professor, the first of her novels to be translated into English. Readers of The Diving Pool, a collection of three novellas published earlier, have had more of a hint of her dark side. But while this latest translation may not be as eerie as “Dormitory,” and the family dynamics not as bizarre as in “Pregnancy Diary,” Hotel Iris is shot through with darkness—this time mostly psychosexual.
A hotel is no place for a little girl to grow up, with its comings and goings and constant stream of strangers. But Mari watches the front desk from a young age, even overnight when illicit noises waft down from the upstairs rooms. Male guests bring home prostitutes; tasteless couples make scenes; “obscene” panties are found clogging the toilets. By the time she’s seventeen, Mari has lost her father and grandfather and runs the hotel with her mother, who is obsessed with brushing Mari’s hair to perfection every day. She has made Mari drop out of school to work at the hotel full-time, and, though listless and without her own interests, Mari has no desire to follow her mother’s every command.
One night, when a hooker makes a scene in the hallway, Mari overhears the middle-aged john order her to “Shut up, whore.” This time the scene in the hotel amounts to more than just the usual annoyance.
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 certainly hypnotizes Mari, who proceeds to follow the mystery man around town the next time she sees him. The two lonely souls begin a strange and tentative friendship that shows its sinister side the first time the old man, an unnamed translator, takes Mari home. She has found the voice she does want to command her and becomes desperate for the shame and humiliation he can inflict on her when they’re alone in his island cottage.
The novel reaffirmed everything I liked about both books above. Ogawa’s prose, at least in Stephen Snyder’s translation, is unassuming and placid but broken by ripples of deeper emotion. Characters on the margins of society come together in strange and unexpected ways, finding something almost like happiness, but tinged with darkness. And there is the unmistakable but ineffable air of “contemporary Japanese literature” about the whole thing. I also found Mari an interesting protagonist; her journey follows the familiar contours of a coming-of-age tale, but along an unusual and even shocking path. Hotel Iris may narrow Ogawa’s English readership a bit, but it’s left me ready for more.
Before The Housekeeper and the Professor was released this spring, the only other book available from Yoko Ogawa in English was The Diving Pool, a collection of three short stories. The blurbs on my Picador edition call the collection “eerie,” “psychoactive,” and “disturbing.” I found that a bit hard to believe after my previous experience with Ogawa, whose writing was certainly elegant and tense but not anything like sinister.
But these are eerie and strange. They pull you into something quite like the room that houses the diving pool in the title story:
It’s always warm here: I feel as though I’ve been swallowed by a huge animal. After a few minutes, my hair, my eyelashes, even the blouse of my school uniform are damp from the heat and humidity, and I’m bathed in a moist film that smells vaguely of chlorine.
We are, as we so often are with contemporary Japanese literature, in the world of nameless first-person narrators. With some psychological problems. Not crazy people by any means, but certainly alienated ones. And generally with good reason. In “The Diving Pool,” the narrator has grown up in an unusual environment:
The photos were all taken at Light House events—picnics under the cherry blossoms, clam digging at low tide, barbecues, gathering ginkgo nuts—and every one is full of orphans. As in pictures from a class field trip, the faces are lined up one next to the other. And there I am, lost among them. If it were really a field trip, it would end; but these orphans came home with me to the Light House.
Growing up in an orphanage, she comes to resent the constant presence of strange children, and the lack of attention from her parents, who are busy running the place. One child remains through his teen years, and begins to attract the narrator deeply. She escapes life by secretly watching him dive into the well of clear, pure water. But the problems she can’t shake soil her, coming between them.
“Pregnancy Diary,” the second story, is also the second one where the narrator’s unsettling dislike of children plays a prominent role. The lovely thing about this story is that it’s a pregnancy diary kept, not by the pregnant woman or even her husband, but by her sister. The narrator lives with the couple and watches, horrified, disgusted, and riveted, as her sister struggles with morning sickness and cravings. The pregnant woman is grotesque, first emotionally and then physically repulsive, while our observer’s coolness is normal and rational, but in the end a bit disturbing.
And the final story, “Dormitory,” takes the eeriness to the next level. By this point in the collection we’ve learned to expect the creepiest of outcomes—and we get them. Such a simple story: a woman gets a phone call from a much younger cousin, asking for help finding a place to stay in Tokyo when he gets there for university. The narrator is happy to set him up with a room in her old private dormitory. But the dorm is not what it once was, and its caretaker is a strange figure. When the narrator herself begins to shirk basic tasks we start to feel worried for her, but by the end the tension has gone way beyond that, to the “don’t look now!” point.
But none of these are horror stories, or anything like it. They are all quiet and contemplative—like The Housekeeper and the Professor, in fact—but with everyone acting just that little bit off. The mood is carried off excellently, and makes me appreciate Ogawa’s talent much more. There is something underneath the prose I earlier described as “precise and solid and delicate,” “soft, even…smooth,” and that something is chilly and tantalizing. And maybe a bit psychoactive.
A brilliant mathematics professor is in a car accident in 1978 and experiences an unusual type of brain damage: he can remember everything up to the accident, but forever after his memory lasts only 80 minutes, like a tape continually recording over itself. His sister-in-law looks after him and employs a housekeeper to see to his daily needs. The job must be difficult in some way because there is high turnover until the housekeeper of The Housekeeper and the Professor is assigned there. The professor’s sister-in-law explains his condition to her, and tells her the one condition of her employment. She must never communicate with the sister-in-law-again.
This is a bit of an ominous start and would lead any reader to expect insupportable working conditions to be braved by the intrepid and resourceful housekeeper, but Yoko Ogawa is more subtle than this. It turns out there is never any reason to speak to the sister-in-law at all. The professor’s needs are easily met and the housekeeper even has the time and energy to hide carrots in his meals (he does not like them). He himself is somewhat difficult to interact with, but the housekeeper does not seem to mind so much when he isn’t sociable. She doesn’t even seem to mind that each morning when she arrives he has no idea who she is, though it must be disconcerting. She knows him better every day and yet remains to him a stranger.
And as the housekeeper comes to know him, she is able to anticipate the professor’s likes and dislikes and get along with him better and better. He begins to teach her about math, the subject that always comes up when his memory is failing him. Mathematics is the ultimate in abstraction but acts as his rock, the only solid place he can return to when his 80 minutes are up.
The abstraction and loftiness of the professor’s mathematics also contrast nicely with the housekeeper’s firm placement within the physical world. She is the one who deals with all the professor’s physical needs: cooking, cleaning, nursing, clothing. She is no-nonsense and maternal.
She also has a 10-year-old son, whom the professor befriends—as much as is possible for him. He nicknames the boy Root, on account of the flat top of his head (resembling the square root symbol), and that is the closest thing anyone in the novel gets to a name. Root comes to the professor’s house after school and they work on math homework together and listen to baseball games on the radio. An affecting relationship develops between the old man and little boy, and Root’s sensitivity makes him an ideal companion for the professor’s fragility.
A few questions linger after reading, however. It’s not clear exactly what all the math means. The professor teaches the housekeeper and Root some basic number theory; they talk about prime numbers and Fermat’s last theorem. There are many general things to be gotten from this. For one, time dominates the professor’s life; he is a slave to time at the same time as he never actually experiences it himself. And mathematics is likewise timeless. But as far as specific formulae and number theoretic properties—what do primes mean to these people?—it’s not clear that they represent anything equally specific. At the same time all the math is correct and advanced enough to be interesting (rather than so simplistic as to seem foolish).
Further, the housekeeper is all too willing to leave under wraps the mystery between the professor and his sister-in-law. Were they together, or was she always with his brother? The housekeeper finds tantalizing clues to the past while cleaning the house, but never pursues them.
Over and above anything else, Ogawa’s prose (or the translation) is really fine. Every sentence is precise and solid and delicate, a style not uncommon in contemporary Japanese fiction and one I really have a taste for. She describes baseball and frying pork and amicable numbers in the same soft, even tone, the result being a smoothness to the whole novel that gives it a very contemplative feel. Very appropriate when the subject matter is as intimate as memory, loss, aging, and loneliness.