Bluebeard in Japan
By Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder
I’ve been trying to write a review of Yoko Ogawa’s slim and disturbing novel Hotel Iris for several months now. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the book, or find it interesting; in fact, my enjoyment when I first read it, back in late July, has become an increasingly unsettling thing to recollect. If what follows seems uneasy, that’s because it is. This is not a safe or easy book. Hotel Iris is discomfiting and disturbing; it probes desires normally reserved for anonymous fetish fiction and dark corners of the internet; it is beautifully written and insistently literary.
Hotel Iris (published in Japan in 1996; translated into English by Stephen Snyder in 2010) is about many things—a teenaged girl’s first experiment with her developing sexuality, teenage rebellion against an overly controlling parent, and an unlikely May-December romance. This is a novel both strangely delicate and gruesomely violent. Hotel Iris’s narrator, seventeen-year-old Mari, lives with her over-bearing mother in the titular hotel owned by their family. She’s spent her life in and around the hotel, always as a maid and desk clerk and briefly as her dying grandfather’s nurse. Mari has done nothing but serve others, defer to her mother’s strict rules (represented most harshly in her mother’s daily ritual of taming Mari’s hair into a stretched tight bun), and effacing herself in the minds of their guests:
After Grandfather died, Mother made me quit school to help at the hotel. My day begins in the kitchen, getting ready for breakfast. I wash fruit, cut up ham and cheese, and arrange tubs of yoghurt in a bowl of ice. As soon as I hear the first guests coming down, I grind the coffee beans and warm the bread. Then, at checkout time, I total the bills. I do all of this while trying to say as little as possible. Some of the guests try to make small talk, but I just smile back. I find it painful to speak to people I don’t know. . . .
I can’t say I have much experience or even any real desires of my own, but just by shutting myself up behind the desk, I can imagine every scene being played out by people spending the night at the Iris. Then I erase them one by one and find a quiet place to lie down and sleep.
Mari’s life amounts to nothing much and promises to continue as such; for her, the Hotel Iris will be the beginning and end of the half-life she leads. All these things, ironically, facilitate Mari’s unlikely relationship with one of the hotel’s most unusual guests. The moment at which this guest enters Mari’s half-sleeping consciousness signals the beginning of Mari’s sense of herself as existing, of having a story of her own. The quiet ennui of late evening in the hotel is shattered by a sordid exchange between this guest and the prostitute accompanying him:
He first came to the Iris one day just before the beginning of the summer season. The rain had been falling since dawn. It grew heavier at dusk, and the sea was rough and gray. A gust blew open the door, and rain soaked the carpet in the lobby. The shopkeepers in the neighborhood had turned off their neon signs along the empty streets. A car passed from time to time, its headlights shining through the raindrops.
I was about to lock up the cash register and turn out the lights in the lobby, when I heard something heavy hitting the floor above, followed by a woman’s scream. It was a very long scream—so long that I started to wonder before it ended whether she wasn’t laughing instead.
“Filthy pervert!” The scream stopped at last, and a woman came flying out of Room 202. “You disgusting old man!” She caught her foot on a seam in the carpet and fell on the landing, but she went on hurling insults at the door of the room. “What do you think I am? You’re not fit to be with a woman like me! Scumbag! Impotent bastard!”
She was obviously a prostitute – even I could tell that much – and no longer young. Frizzy hair hung at her wrinkled neck, and thick, shiny lipstick had smeared onto her cheeks. Her mascara had run, and her left breast hung out of her blouse where the buttons had come undone. Pale pink thighs protruded from a short skirt, marked in places with red scratches. She had lost one of her cheap plastic high heels.
This altercation continues for the first several pages of the book, but the “He” of the first paragraph remains both silent and out of sight. Although barely present at this point, he is nonetheless central to the narrative, for even though Mari is telling the story, she is almost entirely absent from it. Her focus is on revealing things about him—that he is much older than she is, unique in his sexual predilections, and incapable of acting them out.
In the meantime, Mari’s mother enters the fray and begins haranguing the man for money; her interference leads to the turning point in this fracas, the point at which Mari’s story truly begins. The prostitute is trying to make her escape but the man has not yet left Room 202:
“Just a minute, you,” Mother said into the darkened room and to the prostitute on the stairs. “Who’s going to pay? You can’t just slip out after all this fuss.” Mother’s first concern was always the money. The prostitute ignored her, but at that moment a voice rang out from above.
“Shut up, whore.” 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.
I turned to find the man standing on the landing. He was past middle age, on the verge of being old. He wore a pressed white shirt and dark brown pants, and he held a jacket of the same material in his hand. Though the woman was completely dishevelled, he was not even breathing heavily. Nor did he seem particularly embarrassed. Only the few tangled hairs on his forehead suggested that anything was out of the ordinary.
It occurred to me that I had never heard such a beautiful voice giving an order. It was calm and imposing, with no hint of indecision. Even the word “whore” was somehow appealing.
“Shut up, whore.” I tried repeating it to myself, hoping I might hear him say the word again. But he said nothing more.
In this passage, Mari in very short order transcends observation to become a participant, shifting from being barely present to expressing desire. Her yearning to hear his voice again is both a revelation of possible personhood and an indication of how crushed she is. She does not note, simply, that she’s never heard such a beautiful voice before but, rather, that she has never before heard such a lovely voice “giving an order.” Mari’s frame of reference is submission; this moment allows her to imagine that frame of reference in terms of her own as yet undefined pleasure.
These first four pages foretell an affair that is cruel and beautiful, and a story that is vicious and caring and violent, in ways reminiscent of Ogawa’s most obvious literary predecessors: Yukio Mishima and the Marquis de Sade. Hotel Iris is firmly aligned with these very adult literary forebears, but it is also clearly born of one of Western culture’s most famous children’s fairy stories: that of Bluebeard. Ogawa is not the first contemporary author to re-imagine this famous story—Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood are known for their feminist and psycho-analytical takes on the tale in The Bloody Chamber and Bluebeard’s Egg, respectively. But Ogawa’s novel may be the first to revel in its luridness, in its degradation and anxiety, and its terrifying power imbalance.
The French story of Bluebeard, first published in 1697, tells the story of a young woman matched to a rich but intimidating older man sporting a hideous blue beard. All is well until he is called away on business and gives her the castle’s keys for safe-keeping. She is granted permission to use all the keys but one, which if used on one particular door will render her subject to his merciless wrath. Inevitably finding herself unable to resist the temptation, she finds a room full of mangled former wives, lying blood-soaked on the floor or hanging from hooks in the walls; the key becomes blood-stained as the result of her transgression and will not come clean again. Bluebeard returns and is on the verge of killing her when she is rescued by her two brothers.
Never named in the text, Mari’s lover is a translator of Russian, but of no great reputation; as he freely admits, he is “not a real translator, the sort a publisher would commission to do a novel . . . I translate guidebooks and commercial pamphlets and a column for a magazine. Sometimes I do advertisements for medicines.” When he meets Mari, he is translating a Russian novel (also un-named) for his own edification:
“The Marie in your Russian novel,” I said. “What’s she like?”
“She’s a beautiful and intelligent woman. She rides well and makes intricate lace. Somewhere in the novel it says that she is ‘as lovely as a flower petal touched by the morning dew.’”
“Then only our names are similar.”
“This Marie falls in love with her riding master, and their love is the most sublime and intense in all the world.”
“She sounds less and less like me.”
“The moment I saw you at the hotel, I thought of that other Marie. You were so much like how I see her, as I’m translating the novel. You can only imagine how shocked I was when I learned that your name is Mari.”
The Russian novel’s plotline turns out to be just the kind of fetish vehicle one might imagine in a story in which someone falls in love with their riding master—there are trysts in barns with fur coats and cold skin and riding crops. It is sublime, ridiculous, and kinky. Hotel Iris draws Mari’s position as increasingly analogous to Marie’s: subdued, abused, and controlled, yet pleasurably so. But our translator isn’t the only one engaging in a story-telling which brings Mari to life. Even as she is being defined and created by the old man and his erotic Russian romp, Mari is bringing herself to life by trying to force their story to mimic Bluebeard’s.
Indeed, Mari conforms to the popular notion that in sadomasochistic relationships, it’s the submissive party who really calls the shots. She finds him and insists on some sort of contact. She allows him to fulfill many of his fantasies, presumably inspired by Russian erotica, on her submissive body but always with her own end in mind—to become another doomed wife to his Bluebeard and not to survive it. The rumour that he has killed his wife focuses her attraction to him; she is “less upset by the idea that the translator might be a murderer than by the fact that they felt free to talk this way about him,” that is, berating him in her presence for being a “lunatic” and a “pervert.” After her encounter with the translator’s voice breathes life into her, and the idea that he has killed his wife mobilizes her, Mari quickly becomes capable of, indeed interested in, weaving her own tale. And while he names her in his letter, she does not reciprocate, leaving him as a simple pronoun or “the translator.” No other characters are named, either. Only Mari, literally bound, molested, and tortured for his pleasure, has the ultimate story-telling power here—and this too is integral to her pleasure.
Even before accompanying the translator to his secluded island home, where “surrounded by his Russian books, he forgave nothing” and their violent relationship is given free rein, Mari is protective of this story as hers alone to create. Once there and submitting to the violence he performs upon her body, Mari does everything she can to push the translator into fulfilling her fantasy of becoming his next murdered “wife,” and she nearly succeeds. Having slept with his young nephew in order to enrage him to the point of murder, Mari is forced by the translator into his tiny pantry for her final punishment:
Suspended above the floor, I suddenly knew I could no longer escape. My wrists seemed about to rip from my arms, and I pictured the scene to myself. My skin would peel away, the flesh would tear, and finally the chain would break the bones. I would fall to the floor with a sharp snap, then hold my arms in front of my eyes, only to discover that there was nothing left below the wrists. Thick drops fall from above, and when I look up, the head of the translator’s wife is hanging from the hook – with the scarf still wrapped around her neck. . . .
The translator pulled a riding crop from between two jars. I hadn’t noticed it concealed on the dark shelves.
It was long and flexible. The velvet handle glistened with sweat. It must have been much like the one that Marie’s beloved riding master had carried. He brought it down against my thigh and then flicked it back in a lovely arc through the air – so lovely I almost forgot that it was meant to hurt me. He changed the angle ever so slightly with each stroke, so it never left the same mark twice. He whipped my flesh in the crowded pantry, never striking the shelves or the wall or the chain, but always finding me.
More than the pain, it was the sound that captivated me. It was high and pure, like a stringed instrument. The whip played these notes on my body, contracting the organs or bones concealed beneath the skin. I would never have believed that I could make such fascinating sounds, as though the whip were releasing wells of music from deepest cavities of my body.
Mari survives to be rescued and returned to the quotidian horror the translator helped her briefly escape. The day after this shocking scene, they return to the mainland and are greeted by Mari’s mother and the police. While two young men pursue the translator to his death (he jumps overboard rather than submit to arrest), Mari returns to the Hotel Iris. Her shock and grief are due only in part to her unwilling return to endless days and nights in the service of guests passing through like ghosts. She also suffers disillusionment about the translator, who was no ravaging Bluebeard after all: his only other violent behaviour was assaulting an insolent retail clerk, and his wife died in a freak railway accident, rather than a crime of passion.
Hotel Iris doesn’t merely portray Mari’s vulnerable and abused body—Mari’s narrative yearns for an abused and vulnerable body completely stripped of agency. As I write, such a fantasy comes too close to an appalling reality recently dragged through the news here in South-eastern Ontario. My community has just been through the horrifying process of watching the work of a serial killer exposed in intimate detail. In October, Russell Williams, formerly a colonel in the Canadian Forces, pled guilty to eighty-two counts of burglary, two counts of sexual assaults, and two counts of first degree murder. Because he pled guilty instead of choosing a jury trial, the evidence was presented as agreed upon statements of fact. As a result, there was no publication ban and much of this evidence—too much of it—was splashed across newspapers, TV, and the internet. The public lapped it up and it’s not clear to me how big the gulf between horror and sickening pleasure was. I personally read much more than I needed to. I had many conversations with others who expressed intense disgust about how much was being revealed.
Yet our self-proclaimed aversion was belied by the amount of detail we knew. I began asking myself what it meant to indulge so much interest in the details of these women’s unspeakable final hours, and this in turn made me ask myself what it meant to take pleasure in reading a novel like Hotel Iris. Yes, Mari seeks out the violence visited upon her body; no, consensual acts of sadomasochism are not equivalent to assaults planned and executed on unsuspecting and unwilling victims. But do such distinctions mitigate all moral concerns about taking pleasure in representations of violence against women?
At its heart this question is not about people replicating what they see or read; this isn’t akin to the notion, for example, that playing violent video games make kids violent. Rather, the confluence in my community and in this book has reminded me that literature, like human nature, skates its own line between civility and chaos. Funnelling our chaos and muck into art and other forms of entertainment is one way of maintaining separation, of course, but fiction seems always to take a back seat to lurid reality when the latter presents itself—it seems fiction isn’t enough.
In the Williams case, the most public outrage was generated, not by the details of the victims’ final terrible hours, but by a photograph of Williams wearing a victim’s undergarments. This photo—and not the details about how his victims fought back or complied in the hopes of surviving, how long it all lasted, what they said, or what he did—brought this city and province to its feet in collective outrage about the news going too far. The details of these women’s tortured, confined, degraded bodies (both before and after death) were—what? too familiar, after the trials of Paul Bernardo and Robert Picton and an entire TV sub-genre of blood porn to elicit the nausea and visceral outrage they ought to have inspired? I don’t believe that media causes people to do things they wouldn’t already likely do; I do believe it can blunt our ability to empathize and be horrified where appropriate.
Which brings me back to Hotel Iris. Besides not being equivalent to the real life crimes discussed here, this novel isn’t even the most disturbing treatment I’ve encountered in my reading life of the dark interstices of sex and violence. By today’s standards, the kinky and uncomfortable works of Yukio Mishima are fairly tame; novels such as Natsuo Kirino’s Out and Ryu Murakami’s In the Miso Soup, for example, are far more explicit and bloody than Hotel Iris. But Hotel Iris glories in the abused female body as insistently, perhaps more so, than these others. The horror of Mari’s experiences is smoothed out by familiarity and by the discomfiting but irresistible nature of her first-person narration. I empathized with Mari throughout even when I was uncomfortable with the source of her pleasure; she was compelling and her awakening beautifully (yes, that is still the right word) drawn by a very talented writer. But this lack of distance is precisely the problem. By forcing readers to experience Mari’s desires, pains, humiliations, and pleasures firsthand, both moral distance and distaste become impossible to maintain; but because Mari so frequently pictures her abused body to herself, we’re drawn into voyeurism too, which further destroys any possibility of moral distance—to read and empathize with Mari and her desires is to be both abused and abuser both, at least for a brief time. What remains, in the long run? Flattened images, perhaps of a girl hanging naked from the ceiling, and the sense that we’ve seen this all before.
Colleen Shea is a freelance writer and recovering bookstore owner living in Toronto.