Review: Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

As I am currently reading The Courtesan and The Samurai by Leslie Downer (a novel set in 1868 Japan about a young girl sold to a brothel who becomes a courtesan), I thought I should post a review from 2001 of Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, simply because at least the concept of a young, innocent woman being sold into a big city’s pleasure quarter is common to both books. Before jumping down my throat about the differences between the geisha and the courtesan, here is how author Leslie Downer explains the difference (and similarities) between the two:

Geisha and courtesans . . . were (and are) part of the demi monde. Geisha are entertainers – the word means artistes – who performed dances and songs to private gatherings usually of men. In old Japan they were at the very bottom of the social system (like actresses in the Victorian west – think ‘Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington.’) Traditionally they were not supposed to sell sex. That was the courtesans’ job and they were prohibited from stealing the courtesans’ clients. If they married they had to stop being geishas–geishas and wives were like opposite sides of the coin.

A review of The Courtesan and The Samurai is forthcoming, but for now, based on my 2001 review, it has very large shoes to fill when compared with Geisha.

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I refuse to believe this 1997 rags-to-riches bestseller about the life of an (imaginary) famous geisha was written by a man, and an American from Tennessee at that!  The author grasped the correct emotional overtone and feminine sensibility seemingly effortlessly (although I’m sure it was not). Not only that, but he also presents a crystal clear picture of Japanese culture at the time– so real that it seemed I was looking at a sharp black-and-white photograph instead of reading words on paper–and intricate details and insight into the competitive and harsh world that the geisha inhabited.

A blend of memoir,  historical fiction, and fairytale, this is an inside look at the world of the geisha through the eyes of Sayuri, born Sakamoto Chiyo. She recalls her early childhood as a young girl growing up in a poor fishing village until she, along with her older sister Satsu, is sold into a life of servitude by her elderly father and dying mother when she is nine years old. Satsu is sold to a brothel, while Chiyo is acquired by the unsympathetic proprietress of the Nitta okiya (geisha house). From there, Sayuri must fight to survive the competitive, backstabbing world of the geisha. The narrative takes places in the mid-20th century, from the 1930s through the Second World War, beginning with the 70-year-old Sayuri telling her life story to an American professor and progressing through orderly flashbacks to different periods in her life.

This author’s storytelling was so convincing that I was fooled into believing the entire plot was true–from the professor’s claim that the book was an accounting of the life of a famous geisha that was told to him in interviews, down to the intimate details of her life. However, after reading a bit about the history of this book, I learned that the author had the appropriate material to draw on, based on this comment from a summary of the book:

Despite the success of Memoirs of a Geisha, its most outspoken challenger of the book has been Mineko Iwasaki, the retired geisha who provided much-needed detail, background, and context. According to Galloway in U.S. News & World Report, Iwasaki went so far as to say that she regretted helping Golden, that he “did not get anything right,” and that he “made a mockery of Japanese culture.” In response, Golden stated that her reaction was not all that surprising because the closer a book is to the truth about something to which a person is loyal, the less that person is going to approve of it.

Now, I can’t claim to know or suppose anything further about the controversy or whether the author “made a mockery of Japanese culture.” From my layperson’s point of view, I found the details entrancing and believable, although I am quite aware that fiction is FICTION and many truths are stretched or distorted in the telling. So, I keep that in the back of my mind and enjoy the book for what it is: an utterly intriguing and “unputdownable” book. The writing was so clear I felt that I was looking at a snapshot of this life. The plot was utterly absorbing. The author refrained from utilizing banalities and clichés and simply expressed with the perfect mixture of emotion, introspection, and an objective perspective that comes with hindsight. Beautiful!

As with many bestseller novels, Hollywood grabbed Memoirs of a Geisha for the big screen. It was released in 2005, but despite its beauty and epic silver-screen treatment, the book still remains the better choice. No movie, no matter how well done, can match the limitless imagination of a reader or portray the minute details that made the book such a roaring success.

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, Vintage Trade Paperback, 1999, 448pp, 978-0679781585

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