by Arthur Golden
Rating: 5/5 Stars
In this literary tour de force, novelist Arthur Golden enters a remote and shimmeringly exotic world. For the protagonist of this peerlessly observant first novel is Sayuri, one of Japan‘s most celebrated geisha, a woman who is both performer and courtesan, slave and goddess.We follow Sayuri from her childhood in an impoverished fishing village, where in 1929, she is sold to a representative of a geisha house, who is drawn by the child’s unusual blue-grey eyes. From there she is taken to Gion, the pleasure district of Kyoto. She is nine years old. In the years that follow, as she works to pay back the price of her purchase, Sayuri will be schooled in music and dance, learn to apply the geisha’s elaborate makeup, wear elaborate kimono, and care for a coiffure so fragile that it requires a special pillow. She will also acquire a magnanimous tutor and a venomous rival. Surviving the intrigues of her trade and the upheavals of war, the resourceful Sayuri is a romantic heroine on the order of Jane Eyre and Scarlett O’Hara. And Memoirs of a Geisha is a triumphant work – suspenseful, and utterly persuasive.
The world of Geisha is a secret and forbidden world. The shell is beautiful and seems to be a life of luxury, but the core is pure suffering. Geisha do not love, they do not choose their fate, and their life is owned by the men they entertain. They are not meant to feel. The very word geisha means moving art. That’s all they’re meant to be. Not humans but paintings. Like a sculpture, beautiful but cold as the stone their made of. Memoirs of a Geisha is a book based on a true story and let’s us catch a glimpse of the world where the women paint their faces and don’t deserve to love.
Based in the 1920’s in Kyoto, Japan a girl named Chiyo lives with her sister Satsu, in a poor town called Yoriodo along with her sick mother and elderly father.
Her father sells Chiyo and her sister to Mr. Tanaka to be taken to an office where they decide that Chiyo will become Geisha for her good looks and blue eyes but Satsu will be taken to a prostitution house in the pleasure district. Chiyo is taken to the Nitta okiya (Geisha House) to become a Maiko (apprentice geisha). She breaks her leg from trying to run away and her training is stopped. Chiyo is then told that both of her parents have died. She meets the Chairmen of Iwamura Electric Company and falls in love with him. She dedicates her life for him to become her danna (not a husband but similar, the danna gives geisha kimono, and money to afford an apartment. Danna are usually wealthy men). Hatsumomo is the lead Geisha in the Okiya and is jealous of Chiyo’s good looks and the attention she gets. Thus, she treats Chiyo like the dirt she walks on. The only person in the okiya kind to Chiyo is Pumpkin, an aspiring geisha the same age as Chiyo. Her dream is to be adopted by oka-san (owner of the okiya) and be the lead geisha of the okiya. Mameha, a renowned geisha, comes to the okiya to offer to be Chiyo’s onee-san (older sister). She teaches Chiyo all the secrets to becoming a great geiko or geisha. She is no longer known as Chiyo but, Sayuri. Sayuri meets Mameha’s danna, the Baron. He takes an unusual interest in Sayuri, and when she goes to the cherry blossom festival held at his estate he brings her into his quarters. He presents to her, a beautiful kimono. He offers to give the kimono to her if she merely would take hers off. Sayuri panics and the Baron starts removing her obi. He did not violate her, just merely looked at her. Rumors spread that Sayuri is now a worthless Meiko (Meiko must be virgins for their mizuage; their first sexual experience which is sold to the highest bidder). With her debut not far away Sayuri has to mend all wounds with the patrons who heard the rumors that Hatsumomo spread. The bidding begins and Dr. Crab, one of Sayuri’s patrons, wins her mizuage. Sayuri then becomes a geisha, and unexpectedly is adopted by oka-san and is the head of the okiya. Pumpkin is extremely upset for that was her dream. Sayuri is given yet another name, Nitta Sayuri (taking the name of the okiya is a custom in the geisha world). She then obtains a danna, a general in the army whom she doesn’t really like.
War is declared on Japan. Sayuri’s danna leaves to fight in the war and is killed. Nobu, a patron and good friend, takes Sayuri into hiding in northern Japan. She lives there for years working at a dye factory owned by Nobu’s friend. Nobu comes for her and offers to become her danna. Sayuri, still in love with the Chairman, doesn’t know what to say. Nobu says that before she answers Sayuri and Pumpkin need to entertain a party with an American general to try and make peace. She accepts and tries to look like the geisha she was years before. Nobu clearly doesn’t like the General so Sayuri uses the general to make Nobu hate her. Sayuri tells Pumpkin to bring Nobu to the warehouse later at night. Sayuri brings the General with her and starts to be intimate with him. The door opens and instead of bringing Nobu as Sayuri asked, Pumpkin brought the Chairmen! The Chairmen sees and walks away. Sayuri runs to Pumpkin and asks why she would bring the Chairmen. Pumpkin says that Sayuri stole the one thing that she wanted, to be adopted by oka-san. She took what Sayuri wanted as vengeance.
Sayuri is depressed. She almost certainly lost the one she loved. She gets invited to a small get together and is surprised to find that the only person in the tea house is the Chairmen. He begins by saying that Nobu was supposed to come but heard about what happened and now is livid at her. He continues that he was the one who told Nobu because he understood Sayuri’s intentions. He says that Pumpkin explained and begins to kiss Sayuri. He confesses his love to her and offers to become her danna.
A danna is not a husband. Danna’s are usually married and have a geisha as a mistress. No matter how much she would like to marry the Chairmen she can’t. Sayuri moves to America because of a feud with who would inherit the Iwamura Electric Company, the Chairmen’s son-in-law married to the daughter he had with his wife or a rumored son with his mistress, Sayuri. She moves to New York and the Chairmen visits regularly.
The book ends with Sayuri saying that the day Mr. Tanaka took her away was the worst and best day of her life. She says, “As a young girl I believed my life would never have been a struggle if Mr. Tanaka hadn’t torn me away from my (house Yoriodo). But now I know that our world is no more permanent than a wave rising on the ocean. Whatever our struggles and triumphs, however we may suffer them, all too soon they bleed into a wash, just like watery ink on paper.”
I would highly recommend reading this book. It’s a window into a different world and makes you admire but pity the geisha. ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ is an empowering novel that every person should read to appreciate what they have.