- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
From Barnes & NobleBarnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Arthur Golden's brilliant debut novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, is a reminder of just how silly the exhortation 'write what you know!' can be. Clearly Golden, a 40-something American male, has never lived anything remotely similar to the experiences of a geisha coming of age in the '30s, the glory days of Kyoto's Gion pleasure district. Yet it is precisely this vanished world that he re-creates with subtlety, sensuality, and supreme authority, bringing to life characters so complete and idiosyncratic — so fully sprung from the eras he has evoked — that his novel ultimately overwhelms us, as seductive and beguiling as the geisha of its title.
With details as finely etched as those in a Hiroshige woodcut, Golden brings to life the beauty of pre-war Japan, specifically the Gion district of that most graceful of ancient cities, Kyoto, as experienced by Sayuri, the gray-eyed geisha of the book's title. It is Sayuri's metamorphosis, from her impoverished beginnings in a poor fishing village, when she is still known as Chiyo, to her standing as one of Japan's most celebrated entertainers, that makes up the dramatic arc of this tale. Chiyo is only nine when she and her sister, Satsu, are virtually sold to a stranger by her father. Chiyo's unusual beauty lands her an apprenticeship in one of Kyoto's best-known okiya, or geisha houses, while the plainer Satsu is led to a run-down part of town where she will be forced into prostitution. Except for a momentary reunion many months later, the sisters never see one another again.
In theokiya,Chiyo's beauty earns her the lifelong enmity of the head geisha, the lovely but venomous Hatsumomo. Chiyo suffers months of mistreatment by Hatsumomo, whose lies and manipulations not only threaten her future as an apprentice but threaten to sink her beneath a mountain of debt that a lifetime of servitude in the okiya may never pay off. Luckily, Chiyo, now renamed the more auspicious 'Sayuri,' is saved by Hatsumomo's rival, the celebrated geisha Mameha, who strikes an unusual deal with the head of the okiya, under whose terms she will take Sayuri as her pupil.
The quick-witted Sayuri turns out to be a fast learner. Although still mourning the loss of her family and her childhood, Sayuri, already entranced by Hatsumomo's exquisite kimonos and make-up, knows her only hope lies in becoming a celebrated geisha herself. Melancholy yet self-assured, she has an epiphany one morning after finding a dead moth she buried months earlier beneath the foundation of the okiya.
It seemed to be wearing a robe in subdued grays and browns.... Everything about it seemed beautiful and perfect and so utterly unchanged. It struck me that we — that moth and I — were two opposite extremes. My existence was as unstable as a stream...but the moth was like a piece of stone, changing not at all. While thinking this...I brushed it with my finger tip, and it turned all at once into a pile of ash without even a sound. I let the tiny shroud flutter to the ground; and now I understood the thing that had puzzled me all morning...the past was gone. My mother and father were dead...and my sister...was gone; but I wasn't.... I felt as though I'd turned around to look in a different direction, so that I no longer faced backward towards the past, but forward towards the future.
Sayuri, Mameha notes, has an abundance of water in her personality. 'Water never waits,' Mameha informs her at one of their first meetings. 'It can wash away earth, it can put out fire; it can wear metal down and sweep it away.... Those of us with water in our personality don't pick where we'll flow to. All we can do is flow where the landscape of our lives carries us.'
So Sayuri flows forward, absorbing a geisha's traditional education: the shamisen lessons and tea ceremonies; the dance lessons and ikebana; witnessing nights of entertaining in Kyoto's most elegant tea houses. All the while she is aware that her fortunes will always hinge on others: on the whims of Mother, the head of the okiya; on the intrigues of Gion itself; on her ability to negotiate the rivalries between herself and her fellow apprentices and between Mameha and Hatsumomo; and most important, on Mameha's handling of the delicate negotiations that surround the bidding for Sayuri's mizuage, or virginity, a step that will largely determine whether or not she will be able to secure for herself a favorable danna, or patron, without which any geisha is, as Mameha instructs, like 'a stray cat on the street.'
This idea of flow, of going where the current of destiny takes one, permeates the narrative and is a cause of despair for Sayuri, who has fallen deeply in love with a man she believes to be unattainable. 'We don't become geisha so our lives will be satisfying,' a resigned Mameha counsels Sayuri. 'We become geisha because we have no other choice.... Hopes are like hair ornaments. Girls want to wear too many of them, but when they become old, they look silly wearing even one.'
Sayuri eventually does become a full-fledged geisha, even a renowned one. Yet the water in her personality also signals a passionate nature that very little can dam. Ultimately, Sayuri does not fit into this world in which ritual is prized above individual happiness. In a devastating act of courage and deception, Sayuri risks everything she has achieved for a chance at happiness.
Like a gorgeously layered kimono, Memoirs gradually unfolds to reveal the courage, love, daring, and hope of an intensely human — and, it turns out, surprisingly modern — woman. Sayuri's voice, alternately poetic and mischievous, lends the narrative an immediacy that provides a beguiling counterpoint to the exquisitely detailed rituals — such as the lacquered mask Sayuri learns to apply so expertly — that make up so much of geisha life in prewar Gion. Like Kazuo Ishiguro's An Artist of the Floating World, Memoirs of a Geisha revives a long-vanished world and makes us experience, however briefly, its fragile, mothlike, and indelible beauty.