Memoirs of A Geisha

“Breathtaking! Brilliant! Beautiful!”

That’s what is very likely to come out from your mouth when you’re done.

Arthur Golden’s Memoir’s of a Geisha, is one fantastic novel I’ve read in a long, long time. A spectacularly feminine tour into the life of a geisha. Initially I was under a delusion that Golden was the translator of a Geisha’s autobiography.

I was astonished that a man wrote this book! It’s incredible that a man has so meticulously covered the minutest and intricate details of a woman’s life, feelings and her society. Incredibility amplifies to hear that it’s an American man who has written with such elaborate details about the Japanese, with such an effortless style. I wonder if, even some of the metropolitan Japanese are aware this well about their own culture.

Coming to the story, Memoirs of a Geisha, illustrates the life of Sakamoto Chiyo, who is sold to an okiya, a house for geisha. Despising her stunning grey-blue eyes, Hatsumomo, a leading geisha of Gion and the only geisha that okiya, is cruel to Chiyo from the very beginning. Sensing that she would definitely pose threat to her fame, she also plots against Chiyo to ruin her chances of becoming a Geisha. Mameha, a good-hearted, pious, intelligent, beautiful and the most popular Geisha of Japan, who is also despised by Hatsomono, decides on training Chiyo to become a Geisha. Unnerved by Hatsomono’s quick route to making “Pumpkin” (Chiyo’s peer at the okiya) a geisha, Mameha plans slowly and strategically, towards making Chiyo, the best one. She observes auspicious dates and changes Chiyo’s name to Sayuri, on her becoming of a Geisha.

Right from managing Sayuri’s clients, fame and rivalry from Hatsomono to Sayuri’s mizuage, Mameha shows tactfulness and intellect. Sayuri not only becomes a famous geisha, with important dignitaries and top businessmen as her clients, she manages to encounter with her beloved Chairman, who changes her life right from the first meet, which was when Sayuri was a forlorn child, Chiyo. Chairman wipes off her tears and gives her money to buy shaved ice and from that day, her heart was all set to become his. It is later revealed that Chairman had mentioned to the renowned Mameha to take up on pretty Chiyo, for geisha-training, , which altered her life forever. Only because he told Mameha to seek out the girl with the blue-grey eyes did Chiyo become the geisha Sayuri.

The story ends with Sayuri settling in the US with her own teahouse there.
The novel has several other intricate and important sequences of events within. And to write an honest and complete review for this novel would result in another novel by itself.

My cousin, Meenakshi and I argued over our acceptance about the life of a geisha. While, my cuz discarded it saying, “How different is it from a keep? And Sayuri’s mizuage (selling her virginity to the highest bidder) is somewhat of ceremonial prostitution.” I somehow perceived Geishas are entertainers and dancers and I eulogize Golden for his style of writing.

However, the suing of Arthur Golden for breach of contract and defamation by Mineko Iwasaki arouses further interest in the real life of a Geisha and slightly alters the regard for Golden’s novel.

Iwasaki, who was once Japan’s most famous Geisha, who was one among the many geishas, Golden had interviewed for his novel, was obviously a image for Golden’s main character Sayuri, who is also depicted as the most famous geisha. Many incidents in her life and the storyline are similar and it is easy for anyone to guess that Sayuri was obviously based on Iwasaki. Besides, Iwasaki is mentioned as a source in Golden’s acknowledgements. Iwasaki had agreed to share her experience but her anonymity was important due to the traditional code of silence about the Geisha’s clients, and this breach had resulted in her receiving threat calls as well. Golden is also sued for defaming the Geisha in the “mizuage” and confirming the widespread mistaken belief that Geishas practice ceremonial prostitution. However, this is a serious inaccuracy in the novel. In Memoirs, the mizuage is depicted as a deflowering ceremony, in which the geisha had physical relations with a client for the first time. However, this type of coming-of-age was practiced by the courtesans called oiran. A geisha’s coming-of-age involved changing from apprenticeship to adulthood, outwardly signified by a change in hairstyle and clothing.

Despite the very serious errors, Golden deserves full credit for: one, such in-depth research into the Japanese subculture; two, his highly commendable style of writing, which nearly creates a stunning scenic imagery in our minds as if watching it in real, or perhaps living it; and finally for such perfectly feminine writing from a woman’s stance.

After all, to err is human, so go-ahead, and definitely read this book. I don’t have to tell you, I am sure, you’ll be looking out for Iwasaki’s autobiography (Geisha of Gion), next, for rectifying the doubts that the errors in Golden’s novel would have created.


3 thoughts on “Memoirs of A Geisha

  1. I agree one of the very best novels I’ve read…and one of the movies that I felt was accurate in capturing the story…that i have this unexplainable soft spot/crush on watanabe (chairman in the movie)

  2. Indeed. The famous ‘Amrapali’ or ‘Ambapali’ was herself a geisha/nagarvadhu. And not just the concept of Geisha. Various Buddhist traditions and art forms borrow heavily from Ancient India. For instance, the art of Kung-fu borrows from Kalaripayattu.

    Brilliant review. Pretty much the gist of what I would’ve written. Except that I did feel bamboozled when I found out Golden had distorted various facts on the geisha culture.
    Currently I am trying to find a copy of ‘Geisha of Gion’ but pretty much all the bookstores list it as out-of-stock. Indeed, there’s a subtle attraction and deep mysticism in this beautiful art of the Geiko.

  3. Interesting! Concept of Geisha can be compared to Indian Nagarvadhus. It’s funny how things were and how history moulded itself.

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