Book Review: The Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
The Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden is one of the highly recommended books to read. I was never really interested in historical fiction, because it makes me feel like I am reading for school work. Also, I thought this was based on true events and not fiction, and I am not the type to read biographies of such (except maybe the Diary of Anne Frank).
This book was written in a way that the fictional main character, Sayuri, a Geisha from Gion who migrated to New York, recounts her life to a Dutch writer who has become her friend over the years so he can write a book about her. The story starts with a translator’s note from Jakob Haarhuis, a professor of Japanese History like the real author Arthur Golden. He briefly explains their tape recording sessions and of how Sayuri narrates her life. This genius move actually conditioned my brain to think that this was solely based on true events and not made up.
Before being a Geisha, Sayuri was born to a poor family in Yoroido as Chiyo. She was sold off to an okiya, a Geisha house when she was young, and her sister as a prostitute. Let us take note that in Japan, the difference between a Geisha and a prostitute is that the Geisha were women who were schooled and trained to entertain with singing and dancing while the prostitutes offered physical services. Her mother was dying and her father was too old to care for them. The sisters were not used to being apart, so Chiyo tries to run away but was caught, and therefore sentenced to being a house maid. However, circumstances gave way for her to train to become an apprentice under a successful Geisha named Mameha. The book reflects on her life during the 1930s and 1940s during the World War.
I was fascinated about the art of the Geisha from Golden’s point of view, as I felt like I was listening to Sayuri herself. I have to admit that some scenes would have made more impact if they were written directly, as Golden wrote poetically in the narrative. I think that was the whole point, though, since it is being told from a Geisha’s point of view, and in Japanese traditional culture women are not often direct. This has also made me realize that there is more to Geisha art than just entertainment; they have ceremonies for events that would have been otherwise not openly talked about in our society like the Mizuage, where wealthy man bid for the virginity of a Maiko (apprentice Geisha), or the taking of a Danna, where basically the Geisha is tied to a certain man who keeps her as his mistress.
Let’s get real here folks- you’d be looked down if this was something you practice, although it is apparent in our society. People lose their virginity like it is nothing, and there are many involved in a polygamous relationship. It’s not as if it isn’t done, we just have a different outlook on it. The Geisha, though, regards this as an art and when you read it from the book, it indeed sounds like art. The Geisha were first established as women who sold off their skills and company, not their bodies. Their personal relationships are different to those of their professional lives, in fact the first Geishas were actually men. I think the idea of Geisha being the same as prostitutes came when it was the women who did the entertaining, as society tends to sexualize women heavily especially during those times, with the idea that women depend on their beauty and body as their advantage.
I personally did not connect with Sayuri. I think she was a flat character and grew boring over time. Chiyo is a different story; she is a little girl who views the world with open eyes. I think this has to do on how the Geisha life has affected her and molded her into one who cares about social standings and appearances. I also find the other characters, especially the men, just interested in taking her for their own but I guess that is just how their work is. In all fairness, a Geisha’s success depends on her clients and of how influential they are. Now that I think of it, I know Sayuri really loved the Chairman all her life but it doesn’t change the fact that she was still a kept mistress to him, while his wife took care of everything else. I cannot help but think about that as I was reading it. But one cannot talk about culture wrongly just because it does not align with one's beliefs- there are plenty of people living in harmonious polygamous relationships with such practices.
I try to be neutral in this but I think my words are coming out wrong when I talk about the Geisha life, but somehow it doesn’t sound like prostitution when you read it from the book. It is rather best if you read it and judge from your own point of view.
© 2020 Jeshea Pineda