Thursday, May 26, 2011

"Memoirs of a Geisha" by Arthur Golden

Arthur Golden's fictional account of a geisha's life in 1930s-1940s Kyoto mesmerizes readers not only with a skillfully told story but also with the amazing ability with which Golden, a white, American male born in the second half of the twentieth century, enters the mindset of a Japanese girl and tells her story in a first-person narrative. When telling Nitta Sauyri's story, Golden uses exquisite language to describe the beauty of kimonos, lets us in on the intricacies of a geisha's beauty regiment, and discloses the secrets of entertaining rich and powerful men.

Sauyri's remarkable story, told in a flashback manner, begins in a poor fishing village, where Sauyri catches the attention of a local businessman, who takes her away from her ailing parents, and sells her into an okiya in Kyoto at the tender age of nine. In Gion, Kyoto's prominent geisha district, Sauyri must first endure the hard work of a maid and bear the harsh treatment of Hatsumomo, the geisha of her okiya, before she is allowed to begin her training to become a geisha. Sauyri's striking gray eyes set her apart from the other geisha in Gion and after overcoming many of Hatsumomo's obstacles and arduous schooling in the arts of music and dance, she eventually becomes one of the most popular in Gion, called to entertain Japan's powerful politicians and businessmen.

Memoirs of a Geisha is at once a bittersweet love story, historical fiction, and a lesson in Japanese culture. With the Great Depression and World War II as its backdrop, Memoirs shed light on life in Japan during those difficult times from the perspective of a geisha, safe and well-provided for by men belonging to the elite. Despite her material comfort and glamorous life of bohemian parties, Sauyri is unhappy, as everything is decided for her by the women who run her okiya and the men she must entertain. The women who run Sauyri's okiya, former geisha themselves, exploit her charm and beauty for financial gain, starting with her virginity, which is sold to the highest bidder. She must never decline the offer of a wealthy man who wants Sauyri as his mistress, regardless of his age, looks, or marital status. As she is forced into loveless liaisons, Sauyri's okiya grows wealthy from the men who pay for her company. Despite accomplishing the status of a beautiful and popular geisha, Sauyri struggles to take charge of her destiny and unite with the man she loves.

Although it follows the classic Dickensian formula of a poor orphan overcoming all odds, Memoirs takes a departure from the ordinary in allowing us to vicariously experience the life of a geisha. Well-written and absorbing, Memoirs is a fascinating read.