A young hotel housekeeper and an eccentric older translator begin a passionate relationship.
"Hotel Iris" marks Yoko Ogawa's third book of fiction. Stephen Snyder has translated all three -- two novels and her novella collection -- from Japanese into English. I mention Snyder because "Hotel Iris" describes a translator's growing psychological, emotional and physical control over a young female housekeeper at a seaside hotel. In the novel, Ogawa returns to the types of disturbing characters that inhabited her first book, "The Diving Pool," whose title novella partly concerns the psychosexual fulfillment a schoolgirl derives from harming a child.
As in "The Housekeeper and the Professor," Ogawa's gentle, evanescent second book, where a housekeeper cares for an ailing mathematician, in "Hotel Iris" the youthful Mari loves the eccentric, much older translator. She does so despite his imperiling her life. When they are together "I feel as though we're the only two people in the world," Mari tells him. One stormy night he ties her up, cuts off her hair and makes her eat off the floor. When they are vulnerable to each other in this way, the translator needing to dominate her (his text), Mari needing to submit to him, they feel most alive.
Emotionally and psychologically satisfied after their rituals, Mari returns by ferry to the mainland to await the translator's next letter about meeting him. At the hotel where she'd first seen him -- "I had never heard such a beautiful voice giving an order" -- she cleans rooms or assists her mother at the font desk.
Two-thirds through the novel, a third character, a voiceless intermediary between Mari and the translator, appears. The translator explains about his nephew: "When he was a child, he developed a malignant tumor on his tongue. So they had to remove it." His voicelessness stands in contradistinction to the translator's "calm and imposing voice." By writing notes, the nephew informs Mari about her master's life. The translator's loneliness, his debasing Mari, her eventually betraying him so he will further harm and thus love her -- all of this becomes oddly affecting. Two mismatched people finding joy in pain discover each other's sorrow.
"Hotel Iris" offers, on one hand, a depiction of sexual co-dependency. On the other, it examines the dynamics, the perils, of translating both another's words and another's world. Asked a troubling personal question in one scene, the translator "seemed reluctant to answer and sat there pressing on his temples, trying to unravel the thread of an inexplicably tangled thought." Just as he translates others' work, so too does the translator interpret Mari's unexpressed yearnings, and she his -- all by the edge of the sea in this brief, enchanting novel.
Anthony Bukoski's most recent short-story collections are "North of the Port" and "Twelve Below Zero: New and Expanded Edition." He lives and teaches in Superior, Wis.