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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Outer limits of kinky sex and violence


By STEVEN FINBOW
HOTEL IRIS, by Yoko Ogawa. Translated by Stephen Snyder. Picador, 2010, 176 pp., $14 (paper)

Bored with life and bullied by an overbearing mother, 17-year-old Mari finds a painful solace in the company of a translator of Russian, 50 years her senior. Yoko Ogawa's "Hotel Iris," beautifully translated by Stephen Snyder, deals with obsession, fetishism, loneliness and the multifaceted nature of love.

Written in a lyrical and sparse prose, the novel explores a summer in the life of three people inextricably drawn to one another yet destined to forever be apart. Mari works for her mother in a small hotel in a nameless seaside resort.

Her mother obsesses over Mari's hair and appearance, yet is reluctant to allow her any life of her own and so Mari becomes a slave to her mother's whims and parsimony.

Mari's witnessing of the translator's abuse of a prostitute at the hotel draws her into the man's influence and the pair become locked in an erotic game of seduction, cruelty and dependence.

The translator lives alone on an island reachable only by ferry from the resort. Working mostly on pamphlets, medical documents and administrative papers, the translator, in his spare time, is translating a Russian novel whose heroine is named Maria.

Yoko Ogawa sets up parallels between the texts — not only in their masochistic philosophy but also in the manipulative thrust of their narratives, the female protagonists driving the disturbing and erotic actions.

The translator is a sadistic kinbaku master, tying Mari in both psychological and actual knots, hauling her to the ceiling, and spanking her with a riding crop. This reminds Mari of the time she passed out as a child, her now-dead father reviving her.

For Mari, torture is bliss, is memory, and is freedom from her mother and from the hotel. Mari responds in kind with her fetish for the old man's feet, for his commanding voice, and for his erotic domination.

The odd couple's sadomasochistic orbit, interrupted by the appearance of the translator's nephew, now spins out of control. The young man lost his tongue while a child due to a tumorous growth and he communicates by writing on a notepad, a slick metaphor for the things that go unsaid during a sexually driven relationship, for the speechlessness that would normally act as a response to Mari and the translator's affair.

Closer in age to Mari than the translator, the nephew and Mari spend a single clandestine afternoon together in the Hotel Iris, the aftermath of which leads to a night of ultra-sexual violence and the outermost limits of a relationship doomed to burn itself out.

Ogawa, a genius of particularity, brilliantly evokes the descriptions of food, of utensils, of everyday objects and compares and contrasts these "things" with our use of others and other bodies and fetishes to fulfill our sexual needs.

Ogawa constructs a believably dark world of lust and torture, of need and desire, a world in which three lonely people are able to forget their psychological pain and replace it with pleasure through erotic violence and domination, a world in which sex becomes its own language.

"Hotel Iris," for all its perversion, describes a summer of freedom and love. The fact that the translator translates from Russian highlights the depth and ambition of this short novel. The scope of Ogawa's ideas and the breadth of her characterization in so few pages could quite easily have been expanded to the length of a novel by Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, or Mikhail Bulgakov, and her lyricism could be compared to that of Alexander Pushkin.

There is, of course, another Russian novel that "Hotel Iris" resembles — Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita."



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