At a party about a month ago, I picked up a thin paperback that was sitting on my friend’s kitchen table called One Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bed. I hadn’t heard a thing about it but apparently everybody else had– the cover claimed it was an international bestseller (translated originally from Italian) with over 1,000,000 copies sold. One Hundred Strokes is an ostensibly autobiographical novella that recounts a Sicilian schoolgirl’s sexual exploits over about a year. It isn’t really a coming-of-age story– it’s more like borderline soft/hardcore erotica, a strange book about a young girl who discovers her body and “wants to explore its limits,” asking for help from a few older men she finds to seduce her on the way. I took it home with me and read it quickly, and it was quite a romp, as far as that kind of stuff goes. I say “romp” because it isn’t a story of a sexually-curious girl who gets hurt and learns a lesson at the end after something tragically rape-y happens to her. Melissa P, the novella’s protagonist, doesn’t really learn many lessons. She is in control the entire time. She learns about her body as she goes along– she is entirely conscious of what is being done to her and how her body reacts to it. So she’s a likable protagonist, because she isn’t stupid. Sure she’s naive, as most sixteen year old girls are, but she has limits for herself and eventually knows when to hold her hands up and say “no.” I wouldn’t go as far to say that this book was a good book, because it wasn’t. It’s a translated text, and the prose just kinda pedals through until it gets you to the end.
Similarly, Yoko Ogawa’s Hotel Iris also follows a naive protagonist who goes through a journey of sexual enlightenment and awakening — sort of. The difference between One Hundred Strokes’ Melissa P and Hotel Iris’s Mari is that while Melissa P falls in love (healthily, almost normally) with the idea of sex, Mari instead falls in love with a fifty eight year old sadist who lives on an island off the coast of her tiny Japanese shore town. He whips her, and binds her, and essentially makes her his slave, and she doesn’t think twice– because she loves him. And so all these things he does to her, she “LIKES IT”, or thinks she does- because of how in love with him she is, she doesn’t know anything else. Originally written in Japanese, the translated prose of Hotel Iris is really quite beautiful. There are moments in the story during which the writing itself is just as exciting as the suspense you feel during the graphic sex scenes between Mari and her “lover”. (There is one chapter in particular in which Mari and the old Russian translator visit a traveling circus that does nothing to advance the plot but is gorgeously descriptive and sad, and may be the literary highlight of the entire book.)
My one issue with Iris, though, is Mari herself. The author gives us reason enough to like her– having grown up beneath her mother’s strict grip, it’s exciting to watch Mari invent excuses to leave her post at the front desk of her family’s run-down motel to go gallivant with the old translator. But this is where Mari’s agency stops. In any scene where Mari is with translator, her character draws inward and becomes– boring, maybe? Although the observations she makes about her lover are certainly perceptive and intriguing (the old man is actually quite a fascinating character in his own rite and not at all entirely despicable), they all come from a place of utter entrancement, pure infatuation. The fact that Mari is so in love with this stranger, the fact that she never once questions her feelings towards him, makes her quite limited as a protagonist. Even during the climax of the story, during which Mari is exposed to a truly humiliating circumstance, her inner thoughts sway only slightly– she’s still so in love with the translator that her thoughts come close to being inconsequential in the context of the events she’s experiencing. Mari’s lack of any sort of emotional revelation, big or small, made me question how to feel at the end of the book– is Mari’s blamelessness what makes this story tragic? What makes the story good? Or is the ending a sort of triumph for Mari? It’s difficult to decide. Which, I suppose, is a good thing.
Unlike Hotel Iris, One Hundred Strokes doesn’t leave you with much of a feeling at all. Because Melissa is never really hurt, although she is likable, there is no reason to really feel for her. It certainly made me question the thought that a protagonist has to be likable in order for a book to be good. In this case, with these two books, the answer to that was blurred for me. I’m certain I much preferred Hotel Iris to One Hundred Strokes.
Do not read: One Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bed by Melissa P
Instead, read: Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa
Also, while we’re on the topic, watch Secretary!
Enjoy the snow?