Memoirs of a Geisha revives the life of the traditional Japanese entertainers and hostesses known as geisha through the sorrowful tale of Chiro- a young girl who is sold by her father and sent to live in an okiya- a lodging house where geisha’s live on a debt they are supposed to pay once they start to earn. Trained in the difficult arts that a geisha must master in order to earn her keep and subjected to a long list of atrocities that change her as a woman, both from the inside and the out, Chiro becomes Sayuri- a transformed geisha, a woman who has suffered and borne and must continue to do so in order to escape from the clutches of her enemies and the cold, bloodied hands of the Second World War.
The first most striking aspect of Memoirs of a Geisha is the fact that it is a book written from a female’s prospective, chronicling the numerous ways in which a woman might suffer- a geisha, even more so- but it is written by a man. I could not help but marvel at the ways in which Arthur Golden captured the flighty thoughts of a little girl, the rebellious determination of a growing girl caught in a crossfire of libelous adults, the coming of age of a woman who knows what she must do and uses the devices at her disposal to get through the compromising situations she finds herself caught in. In that respect, Memoirs… gets it all right.
I found myself oohing and aahing through the picturesque and lively parallels Sayuri draws in her world. With the naivete of someone who hasn’t been taught to understand every aspect of the world around her, our geisha’s memorial is interspersed with rich and freshly created metaphors for everything she sees. She is resourceful and once she understands the compromises she must make, she never shirks away from them.
In the very beginning we see that she has been successful in her art, in the only way she could. But the story then journeys in flashback and takes us through her life in chronology, one incident at a time. Her growth through the book is not entirely artificial, nor completely organic. The ending you may love or hate- depending on what you were expecting and what kind of a reader you are.
The characters are colorful enough- from the notorious Hatsumomo to the subservient Pumpkin, from the money-minded Mother to the mentoring Mahema, Memoirs… has some strong female characters across the entire human spectrum. There are a a variety of men too, most of them despicable but since we see them all from the outside looking in, they fail to make a lasting impression. A geisha’s life is concerned with deceiving men into believing she is everything they want- a porcelain Goddess with a weak but sensual spirit and so a geisha is not free to reveal her heart to her men.
People in the West see eastern culture as something mysterious, untouched. Memoirs… manages to dispel a part of that enigma but the problem with the book begins when you start to do a little Googling. In his acknowledgments for the book, Mr. Golden profusely thanks Mineko Iwasaki, a famous geisha- one of the last ones trained in the old arts- but Miss Iwasaki later sued Mr. Golden for revealing her identity and for bending the truth to suit his direction. She went through a great ordeal as a result of the revelation because as a geisha she was traditionally sworn to secrecy. She even went on to say that the book did not provide an accurate portrayal of a geisha’s life (most of all the mizuage ceremony- which, she believed degraded the art of a geisha to the level of a fallen woman and was not something she underwent.). She also felt Mr. Golden modified some of her positive experiences in order to show them in a bad light for the purpose of his story. Though the plot of Memoirs of a Geisha is said to depend heavily on her life, Miss Iwasaki later wrote her own account published as Geisha, a Life which is said to vary greatly from the fictitious version. I hope to lay my hands on that book sometime soon because I would love to contrast the two versions and draw my own conclusions.
In the meantime, Memoirs of a Geisha is an entertaining book, anyway- whether or not it clouds the truth is another matter altogether.