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The Book Club

Arthur Golden’s Memoirs Of A Geisha

1. The fascinating world of Gion and geishas. This fictional novel places tremendous emphasis on the descriptive aspects of Gion and the life of geishas; thereby granting readers valuable insights into a world that has bee traditionally kept secret. The protagonist, Sayuri Nitta, spends a great deal of time recalling the specifics of her okiya and respective journeys, and dedicates large parts of the narrative explaining to the reader the elements of her make-up (and corresponding process), kimono designs and the laborious effort of wearing one, her experiences in apprenticeship, losing her virginity et cetera. Interest is continuously sustained, primarily because the reader feels like he is entering a world that has always been closely guarded by an unspoken code of silence; and this curiosity is encouraged. This historical novel also contains numerous lengthy descriptions of various cities in Japan; though the primary focus revolves around Gion, since it is where Sayuri spends most of her time – as a geisha – in. Accuracy, in terms of genuine correspondence to real-life events, is not of utmost concern for the reader.

2. Literary translations and its woes. Whether Golden had done it on purpose, we will never know. However, many of the metaphors and literary symbols employed – particularly when Sayuri is recounting her past and contemplating her future, in which she uses imageries of nature to express her emotions – are clunky and not very elegant. Perhaps Golden had intended to reflect the fact that the English language did not have the ability, or he had wanted the older Sayuri to dispense more “elderly” perspectives or advice; but in comparison to other literary novels the aforementioned does pale in comparison. For instance, “I felt as a simple smelt must feel when a silver salmon glides by” and “I felt as the waves of the ocean must feel when clouds have blocked the warmth of the sun”; there is a tinge of awkwardness and superficiality in the statements.

3. A raw gem of a quote. “We lead our lives like water flowing down a hill, going more or less in one direction until we splash into something that forces us to find a new course”. This quote does aptly summarises the entire plot progression and life of Sayuri, primarily because most of the time she is guided by circumstances, rather than making independent decisions until much later in her life. It does parallel the comment made by Mameha – Sayuri’s “sister” – that “water never waits. It changes shape and flows around things, and finds the secret paths no one else has thought about”. Being a geisha and doing the entertaining was never a conscious career choice; most of the time, it was because the Japanese girls – including Mameha and Sayuri – had no other options.

4. Recurring theme of appearance versus reality. This is probably the most significant theme that underlies the entire novel. Most evidently, even though geishas are heralded as creatures of beauty and talent – in terms of music, dance and etiquette – the novel shows that this superficial recognition of them as individual obscures the fact that they too are human beings, with equal need for emotional engagement. Sayuri and her geishas plaster themselves with make-up and gorgeous outfits, learn little techniques of making their clients happy; but these experiences they enjoy do not last for long. The seemingly fulfilling life of a geisha is fraught with competing ambitions, plots to dislodge and defame one another, as well as to stand out in Gion. The appearance of fame and fortune does not necessarily yield tangible takeaways in reality. Ultimately, the climax of the novel when Sayuri’s union with the Chairman is dependent on the latter’s ability to discern between the two, and see that Sayuri was doing it against her own will.

5. Based on true stories and events? Although this concern should not affect the general reading of the novel, the vivid recounts and specific references to individual geishas and their supposed representations in different parts of Japan – such as Sayuri’s claim that Mameha was featured on a Japanese tourism poster displayed around the world, and contentions over the record for geishas’ mizuage – these little titbits of information subtly infuses sense of realism. For the reader, there is always something fascinating about reading stories based on true accounts; and it also encourages the individual to find out more independently, or cross-check details he has gleaned from the text.

6. Sakamoto Chiyo and Sayuri Nitta. The novel functions as a bildungsroman, with the older Sayuri dominating the narrative as she looks back at her life and reflects on particular moments which have come to define her as a person. The collection of flashbacks, narrated in chronological order, makes for easy comprehension. Sayuri as a character, as mentioned previously, is constantly moved by events and circumstances, and seems to have very little control over her life within the context of Japanese high society. She is lifted from impoverishment since young, and by chance granted opportunities to further her studies in the arts of a geisha, and eventually does emerge as a prominent figure. She is in love with the Chairman of Iwamura Electric, but is constrained by her perceived indebtedness to Nobu, and commitment to the Mother of her okiya. The older Sayuri does not exactly judge her younger self or berate some of the things she had done – as with most bildungsroman – and seems satisfied in the end.

7. Snippets of Japanese traditions and culture; subtle reflections of the Great Depression, the Second World War and globalisation. What was particularly striking for me were the vivid references to Japanese tea culture and eating habits, as Sayuri narrates about her experiences entertaining Japanese men in the various tea-houses and venues. While peculiar to the Western reader, there are definitely semblances of reality for the Asian reader who has had knowledge of these (which reinforces the readability of the novel). Sayuri’s descriptions of the occurrences of the war and its ramifications – such as the need for women to work in harmful factories, the act of hoarding essential items, living from meal to meal – albeit subtle, are haunting. Sayuri’s movement from Kyoto, Japan to New York, the United States of America (USA) also reflects the progression of globalisation, as citizens move from one country to another freely.

8. Interesting comment from Admiral Yamamato Isoroku. “I never seek to defeat the man I’m fighting, I seek to defeat his confidence. A mind troubled by doubt cannot focus on the course to victory. Two men are equals -true equals- only when they both have equal confidence”.

9. Transaction-based relationships and the absence of true love. Other than the relationship shared by Mameha and Sayuri, and Auntie and Sayuri (and possibly Nobu and Sayuri), an overwhelming majority of the relationships in the novel are transaction-based, without true commitment or appreciation of true love. Even Mameha, in the beginning, was motivated by Chairman to take Sayuri under her wing; though she does gradually develop an admirable teacher-student relationship with Sayuri. The broken friendship between Pumpkin and Sayuri is lamentable, but the reader can hardly blame the former for her final act, given that she had been the victim of circumstances as well. It is hard to comprehend Sayuri’s lifelong infatuation with the Chairman; at the same time, it is hard to see the relationship that they share as being genuinely meaningful.

10. The reading of a memoir and the predictability of plot progressions. For the reader, there was hardly any doubt that Sayuri was going to end up with the Chairman (especially with the prefaced introduction, in spite of red herrings in the form of Nobu and Pumpkin’s intervention). The chronological nature of the text also increases the sense of predictability, which does render the plot to be rather monotonous at times.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.


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