Not one for the fainthearted, Yoko Ogawa explores exploitative sexual politics and power relations in her newest novel Hotel Iris. This dark and dreamlike novel illuminates the clandestine, sadomasochistic relationship, of seventeen year old Mari with a sixty seven year old man, the ‘translator’.
The narrative is laden with symbolism, as Ogawa subtly establishes the reasons for their particular sexual roles. These carefully placed hints and suggestions, which act as explanations for the characters attraction to each other, are slightly overshadowed by the graphic sexual scenes that verge on the voyeuristic. Coupled with the dramatic age gap between the characters, this can make for some uncomfortable reading.
However, I would not box it off as flatly pornographic. The depth of the novel is demonstrated by the intricate power relationships that go on in a small Japanese tourist village. These influences shape and mould Mari’s need to submit, and the translator’s need to dominate. Their contradictory insecurities are broken down, inverted, and recreated continually as the scenes change from bedroom to restaurant. As the relationship develops Ogawa seems to question who the truly dominant character is. The binary between strong and weak is a constant theme in the novel. From small interactions to larger, the more significant meetings each character is embroiled in shifts the power. Everything is a struggle of either domination or submission. However, power is fluid in the novel and never rests with one character for long. The binary between sadist and masochist is not so fixed at Hotel Iris.