Written By Ciaran Dermott
“Can’t you see? Every step I have taken, since I was that child on the bridge, has been to bring myself closer to you. ”
A detailed portrait of a time and culture that is quickly disappearing, Arthur Golden’s plucky tale about an impoverished fisherman’s daughter who by chance becomes one of the most renowned geisha in Japan is an epic narrative that lifts the veil in order to reveal a world that is unknown about in the west. As beautiful as the sophisticated women who grace its pages, this is an ambitious tale which deserves to stand amongst the giants of literature as one of the most important novels of the twentieth century,
Told in the first person narrative, retrospectively, of Chiyo-Sakamoto, the girl who will become Sayuri, the fictitious events in the novel are inspired by Golden’s real life interviews with the famous geisha, Mineko Iwasaki. The events of Memoirs Of A Geisha weave the personal transformation of a girl with the hardships faced by Japan during the great depression, and during the second world war, to create a piece of writing that is at once a gorgeously vulnerable character study and a crucial historical document.
“Hopes are like hair ornaments. Girls want to wear too many of them. When they become old women they look silly wearing even one.”
Sayuri’s rise to the top is anything but smooth. Sayuri is plucked from the ‘tipsy house’ of her dying parents and sold to the dominating and cruel ‘mother’ of an Okiya (geisha boarding house) in Kyoto during the early thirties. She is automatically assigned the debt of her rent, food, and lessons (to be repaid when she is a geisha earning an income) and placed in a special school where she learns the fine arts of shamisen and dance.
But Sayuri is an extraordinarily beautiful girl even at this young age, and will have to overcome the jealousy obsessed Hatsumomo, the delicate issue of Mizuage, and the threat of impending war if she is to traverse the seemingly irresistible forces that drive her fate.
“I dont think any of us can speak frankly about pain until we are no longer enduring it.”
This is poignant exploration of Kyoto. Descriptions of the city, of the costumes that geisha wear and their practices and Golden’s portrayal of Japanese styles during this period, are all embellished with the seasoned eye of an insider. The level of detail is startling, and it is thanks to this that the novel comes to life. Sayuri’s world is lifelike.
Yet it is also a novel that is incredibly sad. As a western reader seeing this novel in the twenty first century, it is hard not to be shocked at the sexism that dominates Japanese culture. Sayuri actually calculates her sense of worth on the interactions she can have with her male clients, whether they find her beautiful or not, and like all other geisha she is entirely dependent on the money of men for her income. Whilst this is surely in the interest of historical accuracy, it unfortunately means that she remains a weak heroine. Even the end of the novel, which is some ways weaker than the rest of the story, she is not allowed to transcend her dependency. Golden allows her to remain a little girl until the end. Sayuri, whilst she grows older, is never allowed to become a woman.
“The heart dies a slow death, shedding each hope like leaves until one day there are none. No hopes. Nothing remains.”
That being said, this is the first novel in a long time that has had that sheer cannot put it down quality for me. Riveting in its details, epic in its ambitions, foreign in its ways and styles, this is a novel every bit as mesmerising and as enigmatic as the real life geisha of Japan.
“This is why dreams can be such dangerous things: they smoulder on like a fire does, and sometimes they consume us completely.”