Arthur Golden: Memoirs of Geisha (1997)


I started looking for something to read again after feeling completely bored at work, and first thought about buying a lot of books from Amazon, to try and keep up with my resolution for myself to read more this year. I remembered how in the spring, I was reading books online or though PDFs and as it is way more accessible (and also discreet at work!) to read the books this way, I started Memoirs of Geisha, inspired by one of those lists “100 books you should read”.

I felt captivated from the beginning and read two days straight with barely being able to “put the book down”. The story is about a little Japanese girl who, together with her sister, is sold from her family living in a small fishing village, to an okiya which is a geisha boarding house. Her sister, not found to be that appealing in her appearance is sold to be a prostitute and soon escapes never to be seen again.

The girl, with her real same Chiyo, feels no motivation to pursue the path to become a geisha first because of having been taken from her family and being treated nastily by the only geisha of the okiya who has a lot of power but feels threatened by Chiyo’s beauty and seeming cleverness. After her attempt to escape with her sister, all hope seems to be lost, but as she hears of her parents’ death, her sister’s successful escape and meets a man on the street who is kind to her (Chairman), she decides to try to succeed in doing more with her life than just being a maid.

All of a sudden, she starts getting help from a rival of the geisha living in her okiya, Mamesha, who is a well-known geisha doing really well, and Chiyo starts her studies again in hope to meet the Chairman in the future. There are a lot of men taking interest in Chiyo, and once she becomes a geisha apprentice,  she has two men bidding for her virginity, which provides good enough income to pay her debts in the okiya.

There are, of course, many problems coming her way, starting from the evil geisha living in the same house with her who is deemed to get her, and also the developments between the different men, and her own feelings towards the Chairman, but she becomes successful and is doing well.

The book was revolving a lot around destiny, reading horoscope and relying on chance, and there was always this feeling that no matter how hopeless the situation, everything would probably be OK in the end. Also because the book started with the notion where the first-person narrator, Chiyo or then with her geisha name Sayuri, talks about how she became geisha, there was no doubt about that she would become one even in the most hopeless of situations.

Probably some of the most fascinating parts for me where the daily rituals and habits of geishas and the ways they had to dress, put on make up, and even walk and talk. I could imagine the tea ceremonies, dance performances and even tiny steps as something not very attractive in the European culture, and imagined some of the things very peculiar. At the same time, I really enjoyed reading about beautiful costumes, and how much effort they took and thought how reserved the girls must have been, even from the fact that they had to sleep on a sort of neck supporter not to ruin their hair which was often made for the whole week. Also the fact, that there were professionals, and mostly men, to help with tieing the costume – really something that I was totally unaware of.

At some point, I was walking home from work after having read another chapter in the bus on my way back, and looked around me and thought that all the contemporary people must have felt like peasants in that country room because of how little attention we pay to our clothes, make-up and hair. Then again, the book made the geisha life come back to reality during the hardships of the second worldwar during which the geisha district was shut down, and geishas had to take up jobs in factories and as prostitutes.

Sometimes, I felt very disturbed to read the book, anticipating the worst to come towards Sayuri because not all books are the happily-ever-after types, and I imagined a lot of horrible things would happen. At these times, I found it ever hard to continue – such was the moment, when Mamesha’s patron, the Paron, invited Sayuri to his summerhouse for the cherryblossom party, sent everyone away and wanted her to go to his quarters to try on a present. I thought he was going to rape her and since she was still a virgin and her way of making it as a successful geisha was to sell her virginity or mizuage. Fortunately this did not happen, almost as if the whole story was a fairy-tale after all, but I am pretty sure that typically girls do not get that lucky.

In the end, the prince charming rescued Sayuri from all troubles and she moved to America, which was actually a rather disapointting and too much of a flowey rather than sophisticated end, but given that the author was interviewing a real geisha and based a lot of the story on real life, I wonder how much of this fairytale is actually true. After all, it is called a historical novel. However, as it turns out, the geisha who was interviewed wrote her own novel as an autobiography, supposedly very different to that story, so perhaps this could be my next novel in my fascination with Japan these days.


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