Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Hotel Iris & The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

In memory of the many lives lost to the Tohoku Earthquake, I’m reviewing two novels by Yoko Ogawa, a prize-winning author from Japan. Paired, these books show her breadth as a writer. Each one is under 200 pages and has the multi-layered depth and lyricism of poetry.

The Housekeeper and the Professor (2003, trans. 2009) is one of the most beautiful novels I’ve ever read both inside and out. On the cover, cherry blossoms blow across a deep blue sky where mathematical symbols float like clouds. The philosophical premise features a retired professor of mathematics who retains only 80 minutes of short-term memory along with his past. Every day, his housekeeper and her young son must start over fresh with him, and yet their relationship deepens over time, as does their appreciation for the elegance of mathematics.
About the professor: “He preferred smart questions to smart answers.”
Hotel Iris (1996, trans. 2010) is as dark and sinister as The Housekeeper and the Professor is light and uplifting. Once again we have a friendship between a younger woman and an elderly, well-educated man, but the narratives diverge over character. The older man in Hotel Iris, called only the translator, is a sexual predator who seduces a lonely and naive teenaged girl from a seaside village. The well-developed characters, disturbing imagery and lack of judgment reminded me of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. The reader feels as trapped as the victim by her charismatic antagonist.
From Hotel Iris: “The discarded foil from an ice cream cone that yesterday glittered festively by the side of the road overnight would become no more than a piece of trash.”
What makes Ogawa’s novels different from contemporary Western fiction is the degree to which the protagonist accepts fate without question and simply tries to make the best of it. In Japanese fiction, there is typically an appreciation of simple beauty, a respect for family, a sense of duty and nostalgia for the past. The story moves at a more languid pace, engaging all the senses and challenging the mind to understand the subtle nuances. Ogawa’s books are not page-turners, but you will savor every page. Not a word is out of place. Yoko Ogawa is also one of my Japanese sister-in-law’s favorite authors.

Donate to Red Cross Disaster Relief in Japan

Disclosure: I read Stephen Snyder’s translations and bought both books at Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine without compensation. I’ve given several copies of The Housekeeper and the Professor as gifts.

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@Barrie Summy


Amanda Summer said...

these both sound very appealing, especially the first. the plot device of having to repeat the experience of reconnecting with the father every day is poignant yet introduces a refreshing premise for studying human relationships.

i'm sorry i missed your post last week, as i'm traveling-- will go now to see what i missed.

tina said...

Interesting the same author can convey such different feelings.

Hana Njau-Okolo said...

Fascinating the clear reflection of culture in these translated works; and your summation that "not a word is out of place," makes an impact especially in memory of the lives lost. Somehow, this resonates the feelings of admiration I have for the resilience and fortitude shown by the people of Japan.

Rose said...

I will definitely look for "The Housekeeper and the Professor." A book doesn't have to be a page-turner if it's beautifully written. Reading novels like these always make me appreciate the talent of the translator--it's one thing to be able to translate the basic meaning of another language, but to translate a novel and keep its lyricism and nuances is simply amazing to me.

pattinase (abbott) said...

These really appeal to me and I will look for them. Thanks! I used to read a lot of Japanese novels thirty years ago but let them slip away.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

The Housekeeper .... what a wonderful idea for a story!

A Cuban In London said...

I loved your reviews and given the background against which you have written them, I have appreciated them even more. Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Bee said...

What a wonderful way to pay tribute to Japan! I've never heard of this author, and I am grateful to be educated. The Housekeeper and the Professor appeals to me a lot. Ever since we've realised that my father has dementia I've become fascinated by the rather mysterious nature of memory.

p.s. Thanks for your interesting comments on my bookshelf post. I adored the description of your childhood "fantasy" room. Perhaps a palm does express the future best, but can't you also predict what a person will like to read by examining his/her past choices? I don't know much about palm reading, but I also thought that the choices we've made/life we've led carve themselves into our palm. You know I like a bit of whimsy, though.

Staci said...

Both of these are on my ever growing TBR list...I loved the way you described them!

kayerj said...

They both sound good although I am attracted more to the first. You are right the cover is beautiful and if the story is as lovely I know I would enjoy it. Thanks for stopping by today.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

I love reading and writing haiku, so the notion that these books are spare and lyrical appeals to me greatly. Thank you so much for bringing them to our attention and for a wonderful way to pay tribute to the victims of the disaster in Japan.

Jenn Jilks said...

Thoughtful idea, to review Japanese books!
Thoughtful reviews.
Thanks for visiting, too.

Barrie said...

What a beautiful idea, Sarah. I have never read anything by Yoko Ogawa. But I do love books from other cultures. I think the 2nd book might be more disturbing to read, and I'm in the mood for a bit of a jolt. so, I'll probaby start with that one. Thank you for reviewing! (And for making the button!)

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

Hello Sarah

Thanks for your review. Never heard of Yoko Ogawa but I will research both of these book more. I love learning about new authors and other cultures.

Tracy :)

Alyson | New England Living said...

That second book especially intrigues me. I feel like it is something that perhaps I could relate to in a small way.

I do love reading books from other cultures and discovering what each culture values by seeing trends in books each country produces. But even with all of our differences, I think there are such basic needs and desires that people of all cultures can understand and recognize in any book.

Alyssa Goodnight said...

Fascinating! Although I'm much more likely to read The Housekeeper and the Professor (I tend to stick with the lighter side of fiction). The storyline is vaguely reminiscent of A Beautiful Mind, which I really enjoyed.

walk2write said...

I will be looking for both of these novels. It's not everyday you find an author who isn't afraid to tackle onerous subjects but handles them delicately. Maybe I should be reading more Japanese literature.

Your reviews always delight, Sarah.

Donna said...

What an interesting book review. I haven't read very much contemporary foreign literature and this makes me more interested and motivated in adding that to my reading repertoire. These novels sound good, and the first one especially appeals to me because of its interesting premise!

Cat said...

I love the diversity of your blog; I never know what I will find and it's always interesting. The first novel sounds particularly appealing as we learn to cope with the illness in our own family.

☆sapphire said...

Hello Sarah

Oh I didn't know that Ogawa Yoko's novels have been translated into English. "The Housekeeper and the Professor" is unique because it deals with mathematics as an important motif. The number "28" particulary fascinated me, for I'm a big fan of Hanshin Tigers just like the author. (She lives in Ashiya near my former house). I love this calm(it has a soothing effect) and heartwarming novel too!
To be honest, I don't like "Hotel Iris" very much. But I admit that it has tranquility and lucidity though it is a steamy novel.

Your perspective, "What makes Ogawa’s novels different from contemporary Western fiction ~ simply tries to make the best of it" was very interesting to me! Thank you Sarah for these lovely reviews!

pattinase (abbott) said...

And I picked this up at Borders closeout today. I never would have noticed it if not for your review. Thanks!

Sarah Laurence said...

All, it’s great to hear so much enthusiasm – I think just about anyone would enjoy The Housekeeper and the Professor.

Amanda, I’m impressed that you are dropping in from abroad. I’m really enjoying your Argentina posts.

Rose, I do wonder how much of the beautiful lyricism is the author or the translator. I wondered a bit about the part where the letter “I” in Hotel Iris was crooked because wouldn’t all of Iris be one Japanese character? I wish I’d interviewed the translator.

Bee, I loved your bookshelf post and feel inspired to do one of my own. I don’t know much about palm reading, but I believe it is about predetermination. You are born with those lines. Books, however, we choose ourselves, and I like to think they shape us too.

Cat and Bee, I’m sorry that you are dealing with real life dementia in your families. The Housekeeper and the Professor is all about coping and enjoying what is still there.

Barrie and Alyson, I’m impressed and not surprised that you two are gravitating towards the darker book. Be forewarned that Hotel Iris is quite sexually graphic (S&M) and disturbing. Ogawa actually wrote it first, but it was translated second.

Alyssa, the second book is actually more similar to A Beautiful Mind (loved that movie). The sexual predator in Hotel Iris alternates between rational kindness and horrific cruelty, as if he were bipolar.

Sapphire, I didn’t enjoy Hotel Iris due to its repulsive content, but I appreciated the quality of the writing and her breadth as an author. One is a feel good book and the other is a feel bad book, but both had lyrical language. It was a fascinating contrast. I hope my take on Japanese fiction didn’t offend you, and if so I apologize. I think an American author would have had the main characters rebel instead of accept the unfair circumstances. That’s not saying the MC’s weren’t strong women, only that they show their strengths in a different way. They adapt instead of trying to change their circumstances for personal gain.

Patti, that’s wonderful to hear that you bought her book, but I’m sorry to hear that your bookstore is closing. Our Borders is still open, but I buy most of our books at the independent bookstore in town.

cynthia said...

Happy to learn about this author, Sarah. Especially that first book looks amazing. Might have to order it right now!

cynthia said...

I did order it!

Sarah Laurence said...

Cynthia, great to hear! I'd love to hear what you make of it.

Ellen Booraem said...

Catching up with the Book Review Club VERY late this month...and such great books! I used to read Japanese fiction when I was younger, but seem to have moved away from it. As you say, the books move slowly but savor the senses, especially sight.

I'd never heard of these and am grateful to know about them. Thank you, Sarah.