Desert Isle Keeper
Memoirs of a Geisha
Once in awhile there comes a story so completely transporting that, from the exhilarating experience of reading it, you emerge almost wordless. A review cannot fully describe what is indescribably beautiful. But I will say this: Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha is among the handful of works that come to my mind when confronted with the question: What is the best book you have ever read?
This is the fictional tale of a geisha, the high-class counterpart of a Japanese prostitute, who rose to fame in the city of Gion in the late 1930s. Plucked from a tiny fishing village when she was nine, Nitta Sayuri relates her painstaking training to become a geisha; her encounters with an exquisite but vicious archenemy; and above all, her lifelong struggle to win her great love, a prominent but sensitive man whom she refers to only as “the Chairman.” From the little seaside town of Yoroido to the exotic allure of Gion, from the heady glamour of the geisha life to the stark hardships of World War II, we follow one woman’s heart-wrenching but determined journey toward her own happiness and fulfillment.
The book reads as though you are sitting across Sayuri herself, listening to the cadence of her voice. The metaphors she uses are panoramic windows into a larger-than-life world. She also introduces the other characters in such a way that, while their motivations have been retold time and again in countless other books, they are rendered with a thoroughly human face. There is Mrs. Nitta, the money-grubbing employer; Mameha, the ethereal, perfect mentor; and Nobu, the cynical and pragmatic suitor. But most of all, there is the geisha Hatsumomo, Sayuri’s nemesis. She stands out as one of the most venomous villains in fiction, and yet the poignant conclusion to this phase in Sayuri’s life attests to Golden’s genius in sympathetic characterization.
The book is peppered with upsetting changes and new conflicts. But stripped of its relentless pace and distracting twists, Memoirs of a Geisha is essentially a love story – one that is occasionally frustrating, yet thoroughly compelling. From the very beginning, you can’t help but cheer Sayuri on in her attempt to grasp the barest tail of that elusive happy ending, a struggle that is made all the more agonizing by its sheer uncertainty. Very few books compel you to keep turning the pages as much as this one does.
My only quibble about the book is its extremely vague reference to the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At least the Doolittle raid on Tokyo is de-glamorized, as the book retells it from the perspective of the victims. But the geisha’s post-war fraternization with American soldiers – portrayed here as unwaveringly friendly and generous foreigners – still hints of a Westernized lens.
This is surprising because the author, a scholar of Japanese history and culture, otherwise masterfully portrays the geisha life. You’ll learn that a geisha goes to school to hone such arts as dance and tea ceremony. And while she entertains men at various functions, she does not provide sexual services (which are reserved for only one man, the geisha’s danna, who must be able to afford the price of long-term financial and social commitment).
While all this sounds glamorous, Golden doesn’t romanticize the work of geisha. Through the words of Mameha, the author writes, “We don’t become geisha so our lives will be satisfying. We become geisha because we have no other choice.” There is a tacit edict that all geisha must be content with their lot in a patriarchal culture. Their role is all about obedience and passivity, a mold against which Sayuri continually (if not always successfully) rebels. So many novels implicitly valorize a patriarchal definition of femininity, a fantasy where the so-called heroine derives pleasure and fulfillment from being pursued. But Memoirs of a Geisha tells the story of a woman who, given the circumstances in her life, undertakes the pursuit herself.
Whether or not Sayuri eventually wins her beloved becomes academic, because as a heroine in the strongest sense of the word, she remains the single most compelling reason to read the book. When it finally closes, it’s hard to tell which is more real: her bittersweet musings about the changes in a lifetime, or the almost unconscious flow of your tears. Reviewer’s courtesy prevents me from revealing the nature of the ending, but it is certainly astonishing and unforgettable. It would be a sacrilege to miss this extraordinary story.