Hotel Iris

by Yoko Ogawa and Stephen Snyder

Hotel Iris

Paperback, 164 pages, St Martins Pr, List Price: $14 | purchase

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  • Hotel Iris
  • Yoko Ogawa and Stephen Snyder

Book Summary

Young hotel clerk Mari is drawn to a widowed translator suspected of killing his wife, who initiates her into a dark realm of pleasure and pain, a world that she embraces even more than the translator.

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Excerpt: Hotel Iris

Hotel Iris

o n e

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 shop keepers 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.

Her insults stopped for a moment, but then a pillow flew

out of the room, hitting her square in the face, and the screaming

started all over again. The pillow lay on the landing,

smeared with lipstick. Roused by the noise, a few guests had

now gathered in the hall in their pajamas. My mother appeared

from our apartment in the back.

“You pervert! Creep! You’re not fit for a cat in heat.” The

prostitute’s voice, ragged and hoarse with tears, dissolved into

coughs and sobs as one object after another came flying out of

the room: a hanger, a crumpled bra, the missing high heel, a

handbag. The handbag fell open, and the contents scattered

across the hall. The woman clearly wanted to escape down the

stairs, but she was too flustered to get to her feet— or perhaps

she had turned an ankle.

“Shut up! We’re trying to sleep!” one of the guests shouted

from down the hall, and the others started complaining all at

once. Only Room 202 was perfectly silent. I couldn’t see the

occupant, and he hadn’t said a word. The only signs of his

existence were the woman’s horrible glare and the objects flying

out at her.

“I’m sorry,” my mother interrupted, coming to the bottom

of the stairs, “but I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to

leave.”

“You don’t have to tell me!” the woman shouted. “I’m going!”

“I’ll be calling the police, of course,” Mother said, to no

one in particular. “But please,” she added, turning to the other

guests, “don’t think anything more about it. Good night. I’m

sorry you’ve been disturbed. . . . And as for you,” she went on,

calling up to the man in Room 202, “you’re going to have

to pay for all of this, and I don’t mean just the price of the

room.” On her way to the second floor, Mother passed the

woman. She had scraped the contents back into the bag and

was stumbling down the stairs without even bothering to

button her blouse. One of the guests whistled at her exposed

breast.

“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

disheveled, 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.

The woman turned and spat at him pathetically before

walking out the door. The spray of saliva fell on the carpet.

“You’ll have to pay for everything,” Mother said, rounding

on the man once more. “The cleaning, and something extra

for the trouble you’ve caused. And you are not welcome here

again, understand? I don’t take customers who make trouble

with women. Don’t you forget it.”

The other guests went slowly back to their rooms. The

man slipped on his jacket and walked down the stairs in silence,

never raising his eyes. He pulled two bills from his

pocket and tossed them on the counter. They lay there for

a moment, crumpled pathetically, before I took them and

smoothed them carefully on my palm. They were slightly

warm from the man’s body. He walked out into the rain

without so much as a glance in my direction.

I’ve always wondered how our inn came to be called the

Hotel Iris. All the other hotels in the area have names that

have to do with the sea.

“It’s a beautiful flower, and the name of the rainbow goddess

in Greek mythology. Pretty stylish, don’t you think?”

When I was a child, my grandfather had offered this explanation.

Still, there were no irises blooming in the courtyard, no

roses or pansies or daffodils either. Just an overgrown dogwood,

a zelkova tree, and some weeds. There was a small

fountain made of bricks, but it hadn’t worked in a long time.

In the middle of the fountain stood a plaster statue of a curlyhaired

boy in a long coat. His head was cocked to one side

and he was playing the harp, but his face had no lips or eyelids

and was covered with bird droppings. I wondered where

my grandfather had come up with the story about the goddess,

since no one in our family knew anything about literature,

let alone Greek mythology.

I tried to imagine the goddess— slender neck, full breasts,

eyes staring off into the distance. And a robe with all the

colors of the rainbow. One shake of that robe could cast a

spell of beauty over the whole earth. I always thought that if

the goddess of the rainbow would come to our hotel for even

a few minutes, the boy in the fountain would learn to play

happy tunes on his harp.

The r in iris on the sign on the roof had come loose and

was tilted a bit to the right. It looked a little silly, but also

slightly sinister. In any event, no one ever thought to fix it.

Our family lived in the three dark rooms behind the front

desk. When I was born, there were five of us. My grandmother

was the first to go, but that was while I was still a baby so I

don’t remember it. She died of a bad heart, I think. Next was

my father. I was eight then, so I remember everything.

And then it was grandfather’s turn. He died two years ago.

He got cancer in his pancreas or his gallbladder— somewhere

in his stomach— and it spread to his bones and his lungs and

his brain. He suffered for almost six months, but he died in

his own bed. We had given him one of the good mattresses,

from a guest room, but only after it had broken a spring.

Whenever he turned over in bed, it sounded like someone

stepping on a frog.

My job was to sterilize the tube that came out of his right

side and to empty the fluid that had collected in the bag at

the end of it. Mother made me do this every day after school,

though I was afraid to touch the tube. If you didn’t do it

right, the tube fell out of his side, and I always imagined that

his organs were going to spurt from the hole it left. The liquid

in the bag was a beautiful shade of yellow, and I often

wondered why something so pretty was hidden away inside

the body. I emptied it into the fountain in the courtyard,

wetting the toes of the harp- playing boy.

Grandfather suffered all the time, but the hour just before

dawn was especially bad. His groans echoed in the dark,

mingling with the croaking of the mattress. We kept the

shutters closed, but the guests still complained about the

noise.

“I’m terribly sorry,” Mother would tell them, her voice

sickly sweet, her pen tapping nervously on the counter. “All

those cats seem to be in heat at the same time.”

We kept the hotel open even on the day grandfather died.

It was off- season and we should have been nearly empty, but

for some reason a women’s choir had booked several rooms.

Strains of “Edelweiss” or “When It’s Lamp- Lighting Time

in the Valley” or “Lorelei” filled the pauses in the funeral

prayers. The priest pretended not to hear and went on with

the ser vice, eyes fixed on the floor in front of him. The woman

who owned the dress shop— an old drinking friend of Grandfather’s—

sobbed at one point as a soprano in the choir hit

a high note and together it sounded almost like harmony.

The ladies were singing in every corner of the hotel— in the

bath, in the dining room, out on the veranda— and their

voices fell like a shroud over Grandfather’s body. But the goddess

of the rainbow never came to shake her robe for him.

I saw the man from Room 202 again two weeks later. It was

Sunday, and I was out doing some errands for Mother. The

sky was clear and the day so warm I’d begun to sweat. Some

kids were on the beach trying to get the first tan of the year.

The tide was out, and the rocks along the coast were exposed

all the way to the seawall. Though it was early in the season,

a few tourists could be seen on the restaurant terraces and the

excursion boat dock. The sea was still chilly, but the sunlight

on the seawall and the bustle in town made it clear that

summer was not far off.

Our town came to life for just three months each year. It

huddled, silent as a stone, from fall through spring. But then

it would suddenly yield to the sea’s gentle embrace. The sun

shone on the golden beach. The crumbling seawall was

exposed at low tide, and hills rising from beyond the cape

turned green. The streets were filled with people enjoying

their holidays. Parasols opened, fountains frothed, champagne

corks popped, and fi reworks lit up the night sky. The restaurants,

bars, hotels, and excursion boats, the souvenir shops,

the marinas— and even our Iris— were dressed up for summer.

Though in the case of the Iris, this meant little more

than rolling down the awnings on the terrace, turning up the

lights in the lobby, and putting out the sign with the highseason

rates.

Then, a few months later, the summer would end just as

suddenly as it had begun. The wind shifted, the pattern of

the waves changed, and all the people returned to places that

are completely unknown to me. The discarded foil from an

ice cream cone that yesterday had glittered festively by the

side of the road overnight would become no more than a

piece of trash. But that was three months away; and so, without

a care, I went out to do Mother’s shopping.

I recognized the man immediately. He was buying toothpaste

at the house wares shop. I hadn’t looked at him carefully

that night at the Iris, but there was something familiar

about the shape of his body and his hands as he stood under

the pale fl uorescent light. Next, he seemed to be choosing

laundry detergent. He took a long time with the decision,

picking up each box, studying the label, and then checking

the price. He put a box in his basket, but then he read the

label again and returned it to the shelf. His attention seemed

completely focused on the soap; in the end, he chose the

cheapest brand.

I cannot explain why I decided to follow him that day. I

didn’t feel particularly curious about what had happened at

the Iris, but those words, his command, had stayed with me.

After leaving the shop, he went to the pharmacy. He

handed over what appeared to be a prescription and was

given two packets of medicine. Tucking these into his coat

pocket, he walked on to the stationer’s, two doors down the

street. I leaned against the lamppost and cautiously looked

inside. He had apparently brought a fountain pen to be repaired,

and there was a long exchange with the shop keep er.

The man dismantled the pen and pointed at one piece after

the other, complaining about something. The own er of the

store was clearly upset, too, but the man ignored him and

went on with his complaints. It occurred to me how much I

wanted to hear his voice. Finally, the shop keep er seemed to

agree reluctantly to his demands.

Next, he walked east on the shore road. He wore a suit,

and his tie was neatly knotted, despite the heat. He held

himself stiffl y and looked straight ahead as he walked, keeping

a good pace. The plastic bag containing the laundry

detergent dangled at his side, and the packets of medicine

made a bulge in his coat pocket. The street was crowded, and

from time to time his bag bumped a passerby, but no one

noticed or turned to look back. I was the only one who

seemed to see him, and that made me all the more intent on

my strange little game.

A boy about my age was playing the accordion in front of

the giant clock made of flowers in the plaza; perhaps because

the instrument was old, or because of the way he played it, the

song sounded sad and thin.

The man stopped and listened for a moment, though

no one else seemed interested in the boy’s performance. I

watched from a short way off. In the background, the hands

of the clock turned slowly around the floral face.

The man threw a coin in the accordion case. It made a

soft thud. The boy bowed, but the man turned and walked

off. Something about the boy’s face reminded me of the

statue in our courtyard.

How far was I going to follow him? The only thing that

I’d bought on Mother’s list was the toothpaste. I began to

worry. Mother would be angry that I was still out when the

guests started arriving, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the

man’s back.

He reached the excursion boat dock and stepped into the

waiting room. Was he planning to take a ride? The room was

crowded with families and young couples. Several times a

day, the boat sailed out to an island about a half hour away

from the shore, briefly docking at the wharf before returning

to the mainland. The next boat wouldn’t be leaving for

twenty- five minutes.

“Young lady. Why are you following me?” At first, I didn’t

realize he was speaking to me— the room was so noisy and the

words so unexpected— but finally I recognized the voice that

had shouted at the Iris. “Is there something I can do for you?”

I shook my head quickly, startled to have been caught,

but the man seemed even more frightened than I was. He

blinked nervously and ran his tongue over his lips. I found it

difficult to believe that this was the same man who had uttered

that magnificent command at the Iris that night.

“You’re the girl from the hotel, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” I said, not daring to look directly at him.

“You were sitting at the front desk that night. I recognized

you right away.”

A group of elementary school children filed into the waiting

room, pushing us back against the windows. I wondered

uneasily what the man intended to do with me. I’d never

planned to speak to him, but now I didn’t know how to get

away.

“Did you have something you wanted to say? Perhaps you

were going to scold me?”

“Oh no! Not at all . . .”

“Still, I apologize for the other day. It must have been

unpleasant for you.” His tone was polite, quite unlike the

man who had shouted in the lobby of the Iris, and this somehow

made me even more nervous.

“Please don’t worry about what my mother said. You were

very generous when you paid the bill.”

“But it was a terrible night.”

“That awful rain . . .”

“Yes, but I mean I’m still not sure how things ended up

the way they did. . . .”

I remembered that I had found a bra wadded up on the

landing after they left that night. It was lavender, with gaudy

lace, and I had gathered it up like the carcass of a dead animal

and tossed it in the trash bin in the kitchen.

The children were running wildly around the waiting

room. The sun was still high in the sky, sparkling on the sea

outside the window. The island in the distance, as everyone

in town seemed to agree, was shaped like a human ear. The

excursion boat had just rounded the lobe of the island and

was heading back toward us. A gull rested on each post of

the pier.

Now that I was standing next to him, the man seemed

smaller than I had imagined. He was about my height, but

his chest and shoulders were thin and frail. His hair was even

more neatly combed now, but I could see a bald spot in back.

We stood quietly for a moment, looking out at the sea.

There was nothing else to do. The man grimaced in the

bright sunlight, as though he’d felt a sudden pain.

“Are you taking the boat?” I asked at last, suffocated by

the silence.

“I am,” he said.

“People who live here don’t usually ride it. I did it only

once, when I was little.”

“But I live on the island.”

“I didn’t know anyone actually lived there.”

“There are a few of us. This is how we get home.” There

was a diving shop on the island and a sanatarium for employees

of a steel company, but I hadn’t known about any houses.

The man rolled and twisted his tie as he spoke, creasing the

tip. The boat was getting closer, and the children had begun

lining up impatiently by the gate. “The other passengers have

cameras or fishing poles or snorkels— I’m the only one with a

shopping bag.”

“But why would you want to live in such an inconvenient

place?”

“I’m comfortable there, and I work at home.”

“What kind of work?”

“I’m a translator— from Russian.”

“Translator . . . ,” I repeated slowly to myself.

“Does that seem odd?”

“No, it’s just that I’ve never met a translator before.”

“It’s a simple sort of job, really. You sit at a desk all day

long, looking up words in a dictionary. And you? Are you in

high school?”

“No, I tried it for a few months, but I dropped out.”

“I see. And how old are you?”

“Seventeen.”

“Seventeen . . . ,” he repeated, savoring each syllable.

“There’s something wonderful about taking a boat to get

home,” I said.

“I have a small place. It was built a long time ago, a cottage

on the far side from where the boat docks. Just about

here on the ear,” he said, tilting his head toward me and

pointing at his own earlobe. As I bent forward to look at the

spot, our bodies nearly touched for a moment. He pulled

back immediately, and I looked away. That was the first time

I realized that the shape of an ear changes with age. His was

no more than a limp sliver of dark flesh.

The excursion boat blew its horn as it pulled up to the

dock, scattering the gulls in a cloud. The loudspeaker in

the waiting room announced the departure, and someone

unhooked the chain at the entrance.

“I have to be going,” the translator muttered.

“Good- bye,” I said.

“Good- bye.” I felt as though we were saying something

far more important than a simple farewell.

I could see him from the window as he joined the line of

passengers and made his way along the pier. He was short,

but there was no mistaking his suit in the crowd of tourists.

Suddenly, he turned to look back and I waved to him, though

it seemed absurd to be waving to a stranger whose name I

didn’t even know. I thought he was about to wave back, but

then he thrust his hand in his pocket, as if embarrassed.

The boat blew its horn and pulled away from the dock.

Mother was furious when I got home. It was past five o’clock,

and I had forgotten to pick up her dress at the dry cleaner’s.

“How could you forget?” she said. “You knew I was planning

to wear it to the exhibition to night.” Someone was ringing

the bell at the front desk. “It’s the only dancing dress I

have, and I can’t go without it. You know that. The exhibition

starts at five thirty. I’ll never make it now. I’ve been

waiting all this time. You’ve spoiled everything.”

“I’m sorry, Mama. I met an old woman in town who was

feeling ill. She was pale and shaking all over, so I took her to

the clinic. I couldn’t just leave her there. . . . That’s why I’m

late.” This was the lie I’d come up with on my way home.

The bell rang again, enraging Mother.

“Go get it!” she screamed.

The “exhibition” was nothing more than a humdrum little

function where shopkeepers’ wives, cannery workers, and a

few retirees could dance. It was a miserable thing, really, and

if I had remembered the dress, she would probably have decided

that it wasn’t worth the trouble to go.

I have never seen my mother dance. But it makes me a

little queasy to imagine her calves shaking, her feet spilling

out of her shoes, her makeup running with sweat, a strange

man’s hand at her waist. . . .

Since I was a little girl, Mother has praised my appearance

to anyone who would listen. Her favorite customers are the

big tippers, but the ones who tell her I’m beautiful run a

close second, even when they aren’t particularly sincere.

“Have you ever seen such transparent skin? It’s almost

scary the way you can see right through it. She has the same

big, dark eyes and long lashes she did when she was a baby.

When I took her out, people were constantly stopping me

to tell me how cute she was. And there was even a sculptor

who made a statue of her— it won first prize in some show.”

Mother has a thousand ways to brag about my looks, but half

of them are lies. The sculptor was a pedophile who nearly

raped me.

If Mother is so intent on paying me compliments, it might

be because she doesn’t really love me very much. In fact, the

more she tells me how pretty I am, the uglier I feel. To be

honest, I have never once thought of myself as pretty.

She still does my hair every morning. She sits me down at

the dressing table and takes hold of my ponytail, forcing me

to keep very still. When she starts in with the brush, I can

barely stand it, but if I move my head even the least bit, she

tightens her grip.

She combs in camellia oil, making sure every hair is lacquered

in place. I hate the smell. Sometimes she pins it up

with a cheap barrette.

“There,” she says, with deep satisfaction in her voice, “all

done.” I feel as though she’s hurt me in a way that will never

heal.

I was sent to bed without any dinner that night— the

usual punishment since I was little. Nights when my stomach

is empty have always seemed darker, but as I lay there I

found myself tracing the shape of the man’s back and ear

over and over in my mind.

Mother took extra care with my hair the next morning,

using more oil than usual. And she made an even bigger fuss

about how pretty I am.

The Iris came into being when my great- grandfather fixed up

an old inn and turned it into a hotel. That was more than a

hundred years ago. In that part of town, a restaurant or hotel

was either supposed to have an ocean view or to be right on

the beach. The Iris didn’t qualify on either count: it took more

than half an hour to walk to the sea, and only two of the

rooms had views. The rest looked out over the fish- processing

factory.

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 yogurt 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 saying 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, and besides, Mother scolds

me if I make a mistake with the cash register and the receipts

are off.

The woman who works for us as a maid comes just before

noon, and she and Mother begin cleaning the guest rooms.

In the meantime, I straighten the kitchen and the dining

room. I also answer the phone to take reservations, or to talk

to the linen company or the tourist board. When Mother

finishes the cleaning, she comes to check on me. If she finds

even one hair out of place, she immediately combs it down.

Then we get ready to welcome the new guests.

Most of my day is spent at the front desk. The space behind

the desk is so small and cramped you can reach just

about anything you need without moving— the bell, the oldfashioned

cash register, the guest book, the pen, the phone,

the tourist pamphlets. The counter itself is scarred and dark

from all the hands that have touched it.

As I sit slumped behind the desk, the smell of raw fi sh

drifts in from the factory across the way, and I can see the

steam from the machines that make fish paste seeping through

gaps in the factory windows. Stray cats are always gathered

under the delivery trucks, waiting for something to spill from

the flatbeds.

My senses seem sharpest when the guests are all checked

in, settled in their rooms getting ready for bed. From my

stool behind the desk, I can hear and smell and feel everything

happening in the hotel. 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 the people spending the night at the Iris.

Then I erase them one by one and find a quiet place to lie

down and sleep.

A letter from the translator arrived on Friday morning. The

handwriting was very beautiful. Taking refuge in the corner

behind the desk, I read it as discreetly as I could.

My Dear Mari,

Please forgive me for writing to you like this, but it was

such a great and unexpected plea sure to speak with you on

Sunday afternoon in the waiting room at the dock. At my

age, few things are unexpected, and one spends considerable

effort avoiding shocks and disappointments. I don’t suppose

you would understand, but it is the sort of mental

habit you develop when you reach old age.

But this past Sunday was different. Time seemed to have

stopped, and I found myself being led to a place I had

never even imagined.

It would be only natural that you despise me for the disgusting

incident I provoked at the hotel, and I had been

hoping even before we met to make a proper apology. But

the open and completely unguarded way you looked at me

left me so bewildered that I was unable to say anything to

the point. Thus, I wish to offer you my apologies in this

letter.

I have lived alone for a long time now, and I spend my

days locked away on the island with my translations. I

have very few friends, and I have never known a beautiful

girl like you. It has been decades since anyone waved

good- bye to me the way you did. I have walked along

that dock countless times, but always alone, never once

having cause to turn back to look for anyone.

You waved to me as if I were an old friend, and that

gesture— insignificant to you— was enormously important

to me. I want to thank you . . . and thank you again.

I come into town every Sunday to do my shopping, and I

will be in front of the fl ower clock in the plaza about two

o’clock in the afternoon. I wonder whether I shall have

the good fortune to see you there again. I have no intention

of trying to extract a promise from you— think of my

request as simply an old man’s ramblings. Don’t give it a

second thought.

The days seem to grow steadily warmer, and I suspect

you will be busier at the hotel. Please take care of yourself.

P.S. I know it was rude of me, but I took the liberty of

finding out your name. By coincidence, the heroine of the

novel I am translating now is named Marie.

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