Sunday, August 31, 2008

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

When I first picked this book up at the library, I noticed that the author was a man and wondered how well a man (an American man from Tennessee, actually) could tell the story of a geisha. But I had heard good things about it, so I checked it out. The first thing you read when you start the book is a translator's note from the man who translated the memoirs. His subject, Nitta Sayuri, is a geisha who worked in the Gion district of Kyoto before, during, and after WWII and who eventually moved to New York to start a tea house with her danna (a sort of a boyfriend who pays all of a geisha's expenses in exchange for an exclusive sexual relationship with her during the time in which he supports her). The translator's note goes into a bit of detail about how the conversations between himself and Sayuri were recorded over a period of time, discusses her possible motivations for sharing her story about a lifestyle which has an unwritten code of silence, and even puts forth a lengthy discussion about the differences in perspective between a memoir and a biography. Realizing a book is based on a true person's story always makes it more interesting to me, so I was ready to proceed.

The story begins in 1929 when Sayuri is a 9-year-old child in a fishing village in Japan. After her ailing mother dies, Sayuri and her sister are sold to separate houses in Kyoto. Sayuri gets the better end of the deal here--being the prettier of the two, she is sold to a house that trains geisha, while her sister is sold to a house of prostitution. Sayuri is pitted against Hatsumomo, the head geisha in the house who does everything she can to thwart Sayuri's success. In the world of the geisha, many years of training are involved to learn everything from the way to pour tea (and show a little bit of wrist) to how to play a variety of musical instruments and perform elaborate dances. The more popular geisha are requested at more parties and thus earn more for the house in which they work. Everyone gets a cut first, and only the most successful ever gain their independence. Sayuri tries to escape with her sister, but while her sister manages to escape, she does not and breaks her arm in the process. She is now left in the unfortunate position of being indebted to the house for not only the cost of purchasing her, but for her medical expenses on top of that. The house mother pulls her out of geisha training and relegates her to being a maid. Fortunately for Sayuri, she catches the attention of Mameha, a top geisha who is in competition with Hatsumomo and convinces the house mother to return Sayuri to training under her tutelage, promising she will be able to repay her debts to the house before the age of twenty. And, despite all obstacles, she succeeds.

Sayuri's struggles and eventual triumph are heart-wrenching and poignant. A love she can never have weaves through the story line, while Sayuri makes her way through the trials of the sale of her virginity and the bidding war between the men who want to be her first danna. The winner is a general she feels no affection for, but from whom she receives the benefit of extra food and tea rations during the first stages of WWII. During most of her life, as with most geisha in her society, her job is to entertain, tell stories, be flirtatious, and generally try to keep a party of grumpy and/or drunken businessmen sociable. During the height of WWII, the tea houses are shut down and Sayuri is left begging her former danna and clients for help. One is willing to help her and she is sent to a safe house where she works sewing parachutes. Once the war is over, she finds herself yearning for her old life, and looks up the matron of her previous house, who is happy to go back into business.

The story is a page turner throughout, submerging the reader in a foreign life that is described in beautiful detail. Everything from the matron of the establishment to the embroidery of the kimonos is described with such brilliant metaphors that the reader is drawn in as if in a beautiful, skewed fairy-tale. By the time you get to the end, you are amazed at the life this woman has led.

After you turn the last page, you get to the acknowledgements, where the first sentence says *SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ FURTHER IF YOU THINK YOU MIGHT READ THIS BOOK SOON!* "Although the character of Sayuri and her story are completely invented, the historical facts of a geisha's day-to-day life in the 1930s and 1940s are not." So I feel a little stupid like maybe I was supposed to know this was a fictional story already. Maybe everyone knows this. But I feel like my reading experience was improved by not knowing. Either way, it is a tribute to Mr. Golden that he was able to describe his character's experiences so vividly that I didn't know the difference. I'll admit there were a few points at which I thought, "Wow, it is amazing her story turned out so perfectly,"or "This uneducated geisha from a fishing village sure has a way with the metaphors," but I really was surprised when I found out it was not a true story after all. *END SPOILER ALERT*

I really enjoyed this book, and though it may not be for everyone, I would recommend it.


Amanda said...

I love the movie, and this book has been on my to-read list for two years now. I think maybe it's time I actually picked it up, especially after your good review!

Anonymous said...

I think you'd like it--it's very captivating and well-written.

Julie said...

I've never seen the movie or read the book. I've always been intrigued by hearing about it from friends. It sounds quite mesmerizing. Nice review and I was sure to skip the spoiler part.

Anonymous said...

You have quite a bit of self-control. :) I can never skip the spoiler alert portions. But I'm glad you did, especially if you're interested in reading it later.

Trixie said...

Great review. I really enjoyed this book when I read it, but I didn't remember how much of the story I forgot. Jen your review has helped me remember more of it. It was really very captivating and kept me interested. I do think Amanda and Julie would like it.