Friday, December 28, 2012

The Pleasure of Her Charms: Memoirs of a Geisha Review

MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA by Arthur Golden

Here again is another novel for which I had seen the film before reading the book.  I enjoyed the film adaptation of Memoirs of A Geisha as a beautiful and lavish visual feast.  Now that I've read the book, I can see why fans of the novel weren't too pleased with its adaptation.  I never worry about changes from book to screen: that is par for the course. 

Besides, I am not here to discuss the film's fidelity to the source material.  I am here to discuss the book itself.  I found Memoirs of a Geisha to have captured what a geisha speaking to you might sound like in its turns of phrases, but like all good geisha, kept much hidden from the reader.

The 'memoirs' are the first-person recollections of Sayuri, a retired geisha now living in New York City.  She tells the interviewer (and us) about her life, one that has been governed more by chance and fortune than any deliberate decision by Sayuri herself.  Her tale takes us from pre-to-post war Japan, taking place mostly before Japan's defeat in World War II though the last few chapters deal with some of the difficulties the post-war era had on both her and the world of geisha.   

She started out as Chiyo, the daughter of a poor fisherman in a little Japanese village.  Her home, which she calls 'the tipsy house' is far from the main village.  Her mother is dying, and after she is gone there will be only her father and her sister Satsu.  One day, which she describes as her best and worst day, she falls on the street, but this attracts the attention of wealthy businessman Mr. Tanaka.  Soon, Tanaka shows interest in both Chiyo and Satsu, in particular Chiyo with her marvelous blue-grey eyes. 

At first Chiyo believes Tanaka will adopt them and, to coin a phrase, take them away from all this.  Therefore, it comes as a shock and horror to discover that, far from adopting them, Tanaka has sold them, and they are whisked off to Kyoto, specifically the pleasure district of Gion.  She is now the property of an okiya (a home for geisha), while her sister is not.  The okiya is run by Mother, a particularly ugly woman in every way possible, and Granny, simply cantankerous.  Only Auntie shows Chiyo anything close to kindness.

The okiyo is home to Hatsumomo, a great geisha renowned for her beauty but who is at heart a monstrous and drunken bully.  She belittles and abuses everyone, including and especially both Chiyo and another girl whom Chiyo nicknames Pumpkin, a name that sticks even when Pumpkin begins to train as geisha herself.  Chiyo is terribly unhappy and wishes to be with Satsu, who has been sold to a whorehouse.  They manage to see each other and Satsu plans to run away, but on a dark and stormy night she falls from the roof in a failed escape.  Now Chiyo's own training to be geisha stops and she is basically a slave.

In the midst of all this misery, she has a fateful encounter while crying near a river.  A man comforts her, gives her some money and a handkerchief to dry her eyes.  This is The Chairman, who now inspires Chiyo to somehow become a geisha in the chance of reuniting with him.  Her prayers are answered in the form of Mameha, a famous and renowned geisha who is one of the few who can rival Hatsumomo in popularity.  Mameha strikes a bargain with greedy Mother: Mameha will take on Chiyo's training in the art of geisha, and if Chiyo fails to earn a certain amount in a certain time Mameha will pay Mother, but if she does then Chiyo's debts to the okiya are paid. 

Chiyo is at first frightened, given that Hatsumomo once forced Chiyo to deliberately ruin a beautiful kimono owned by Mameha, but soon she finds her 'older sister' to be a wise counselor and formidable trainer in the art of entertaining men.  Soon Chiyo becomes Sayuri, maiko (or apprentice) to Mameha and is becoming not only successful but a competitor to Hatsumomo, who is Pumpkin's older sister.  The ultimate success comes when Sayuri's virginity is auctioned off to a Dr. Crab (a nickname Sayuri has given him). 

Hatsumomo becomes more erratic and careless, and her behavior becomes too much even for Gion.  She is driven out after physically attacking a renowned kabuki actor, and Sayuri can now pursue Mameha's great plan: to get Sayuri a danna, or patron.  Mameha has selected Nobu, a partner in an electronic firm whose partner is The Chairman himself.  Sayuri does as she is told, and while she grows fond of Nobu, a most irascible man made more unattractive due to his war-time injuries which has left him one-armed and disfigured, Sayuri's heart remains with the Chairman.

Eventually, the Second World War brings this floating world to an abrupt end.  Sayuri has managed to get a general to be her danna, which has secured her okiya rationed supplies for a long time.  However, the general falls and only Nobu, still unhappy at Sayuri's choice of danna, is able to send her to the countryside to safety.  After the war, Sayuri still finds things difficult with a version of Gion reopening.  She manages to return to the world of geisha, but her plan to disillusion Nobu by 'accidentally' being discovered with another man goes awry when it's the Chairman who comes upon her.  Pumpkin, bitter about Sayuri's success and adoption to inherit the okiya, cause her to betray Sayuri. 

However, not all is lost.  The Chairman reveals himself to have been Mameha's sponsor for Chiyo, but was reluctant to become Sayuri's danna when Nobu began to show interest.  However, the Chairman reveals Sayuri's 'indiscretion' to Nobu, thus freeing the Chairman to take Sayuri as his mistress.  This arrangement forces Sayuri to retire as a geisha, and she eventually emigrates to the United States, with the Chairman still her patron.  The Chairman dies and leaves Sayuri to contemplate her extraordinary life.

Golden captures a voice of how one imagines a geisha would speak.  Many turns of phrases in Memoirs of a Geisha have a remarkably poetic air to them, and somehow I picture a woman trained to speak in somewhat elaborate manners.  If anything the voice of Sayuri is that of a properly demure woman.  She never sounds harsh or angry at how things have turned out or in remembering the cruel acts of Hatsumomo or Tanaka, or even her father for basically selling her out.

Instead, Sayuri seems to have a more resigned voice, one that accepts things as they came.  Minus her wish to become geisha so as to be reunited with the Chairman she never consciously takes any firm steps.  All her goals and dreams and aspirations are with that one singular hope: to be with the Chairman once again.

One does wonder why, whenever reflecting on just how cruel her abuse was at the okiya, there was never even a quick flash of anger.  One does wonder why, when reflecting on the loss of her family, there was never even a tinge of regret.  Instead, Sayuri speaks of all these things, and all things really, with the same voice: that of a woman trained to conceal her emotions and present only a smiling face to all whom she entertains. 

In fact, this isn't a fault in Memoirs of a Geisha in that if one believes that Sayuri is dictating her life story to a Westerner, she has opted to conceal more than she reveals.   Near the end of the book, she hints that she and the Chairman had a child, but never actually comes out and says, "I had a son with the Chairman".  Instead, like a good geisha, she subtly suggests this, but only once and almost in passing.

What Memoirs of a Geisha is really more about is the world of geisha, this lost "Floating World", and given Golden's various interviews one can trust the imagery of this world he paints.  Memoirs of a Geisha gives the reader a rare 'inside look' at this world which to outsiders, particularly Westerners, is all but forbidden. 

Memoirs of a Geisha, unfortunately, has as its protagonist who is more like a leaf caught in the currents of a river, sometimes tumultuous, sometimes placid, than of a fish trying to reach its spawning area.  Again, Sayuri never acts to better herself, but to continuously keep within reach of the Chairman, to be with the Chairman.  She has no goal save but the Chairman.  Few leads have been so wrapped up in keeping to her childhood dreams than Chiyo/Sayuri.  Sayuri never years for freedom of any kind: financial, emotional, spiritual. 

She tells us in her demure voice that she had, to her great surprise, once been ranked among the Top Twenty Gion Geisha of All Time.  She does not know how given she never saw herself as particularly good or beautiful or talented.  Yet one wonders if she was as good as they say she was (and as she suggests she was) why not have a plan or ambition to strike out on her own, become not just one of the great geisha but become her own woman?

Sayuri never does so. Instead, all her actions are geared to be with the Chairman in some way.  Whatever made her successful, whether it was her grace or conversational skills or dancing or what-have-you, we basically have to take it on faith.  Sayuri in a sense gives us a shadow of a geisha, which might be correct in how a geisha would behave to outsiders but doesn't give us much insight into herself as a person (apart from her quest to be with the Chairman).  In many ways, Sayuri is a mystery, and whether it is accurate for a geisha to keep hidden within her own memoirs is up to the reader.  I thought it sounded accurate to keep much emotion within herself.

What I found with Memoirs of a Geisha is that in many ways, it is like how I imagine spending time with an actual geisha would be.  First, I expect there would be no sex: geisha are not prostitutes.  In fact, they are the ones who will select their danna, and they are not going to have sex with every man they entertain.  Instead, geisha would entertain with words, dance, song, a bit of flirting, but nothing more. Memoirs of a Geisha does so: it entertains, but one doesn't race to read what is going to happen next.

I did not get what I call the Byzantium Effect with Memoirs of a Geisha.  In Stephen Lawhead's novel, I was left with such a cliffhanger that I charged ahead when reading, even if I was exhausted and only that would force me to stop.  In Memoirs of a Geisha, I found something entertaining, giving me a glimpse into a world I might never encounter personally, but not one I would rush to keep in.  Like a true geisha, Memoirs of a Geisha tells an interesting story, but once we bid good night, and is off to another engagement, the geisha leaves a pleasant memory but nothing personal behind.       

Arthur Golden
Born 1956



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