As someone not acquainted with Japanese culture, when I first heard about ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ in 2006, I thought it was the story of a prostitute. A classmate of mine who mentioned about the book was kind enough to explain a few things about geishas to me. Seven years later, when I finally got down to reading the book, I was only disappointed that I had not picked up the book all those years ago!
The story begins with a nine-year old and her sister being sold away by an old father, whose wife is on her death-bed. After being dumped in a okiya in Gion, and her sister is taken away to a brothel, little Chiyo lives each day with dreams of going back to her ‘tipsy home’ in the little fishing village of Yoroido. Once she learns that her parents have both passed away and her sister has eloped, she loses all purpose in life for a while.
That is, until a man in his 40s – referred to as ‘Chairman’ – consoles her as she is crying by the river one day. She works with renewed vigor, towards a future where she would be a beautiful geisha and is in the company of men like the Chairman. This dream is soon to be realised when she meets the famous geisha Mameha, who takes it upon herself to become Chiyo’s ‘older sister’ and train her as the apprentice geisha named Sayuri. Her only dream through the ordeal of going through classes and dances is to one day meet the Chairman. Things take a turn when the Chairman’s friend Nobu-san seems to be more interested in her than the Chairman.
When Sayuri understands that the Nobu intends to become her ‘danna’ and provide for her, she goes above and beyond to stall it. In the process, she allows the General to be her danna. She survives the war, with Nobu’s help. And when the topic of danna resurfaces, she resorts to doing something that would invite the ire of Nobu in order to drive him away and thus, keeping the door open to realising her dream of becoming the Chairman’s mistress one day…
The story itself is engaging and a thoroughly enjoyable read. It gives a first-person account of Japan between 1929 and the early years of 1950s. The book is essentially a story about dreams, hopes and destiny. A romance story, told from a geisha’s perspective. And at some point it really makes the reader sit back and think, we try to judge geishas as prostitutes for taking up a danna and when we look at mistresses, we think of them differently, but are they not one and the same?
Arthur Golden manages to relay the emotions of the protagonist quite convincingly. You see the character’s growth and her cleverness in his choice of analogies. The story, told in the form of a geisha’s narration to the author is filled with insights that are comparisons to the nature like, ‘Hatsumomo pays her no more attention than she would a leaf that has fluttered into the courtyard’; or ‘…treats you…like a serpent treats its next meal…’; or ‘I am no more a rival to her than a puddle is a rival to the ocean’. The most poignant of all though, is reserved for the very last where Sayuri compares the struggles and triumphs in one’s life to watery ink on paper that ‘bleed into a wash’!
Another point worth noting was that, the way Sayuri looked at sex during her mizuage seemed more like something to be endured. It was repulsive to the extent that I was almost moved to help Sayuri get rid of Dr. Crab who won the bid to ‘de-flower’ her. Although, the Japanese culture at the point didn’t consider it as prostitution, you cannot help but see the act for what it really is and call a spade a spade.
You see the theme of Karma in Hatsumomo’s story, where she gets her just deserts in the end. As for Pumpkin, I cannot help but feel a little sorrow when I think of her change in demeanor towards Sayuri. Her loss of innocence and her shift from the kind heart to a bitter soul seems to be the result of a life that dealt her way too much unfairness and thus hardened her to the extent that she seemed to have developed a layer of crudeness and meanness to see her through her life.
Personally, I liked Nabu-san. [Alright, time for a SPOILER ALERT, skip to the next paragraph if you have not read the book!] I would have pegged him for a good man, a man who might not always be the prince charming, but a sensible character who did appreciate the good things in life. But still, he fell short when he judged the object of his affection based on whom she would give herself to. Now, in normal circumstances, that would be deplorable. But when the story itself is set in a zeitgeist where mistresses seemed to be content with being provided for by a rich man in exchange for sexual favors, I would have been almost willing to overlook that fact. That is when I realize that Sayuri never hated Nobu; she just loved the Chairman way too much!
But one thing I couldn’t really reconcile with was the fact that, although these women worked extremely hard to look beautiful and perfect the arts and trying to entertain, they were inevitably reliant on the wealthy men who visited Gion for a break from their real life with jobs, wives and children. They plotted and struggled to win the affection of these men to eke out a living. Their struggles somehow seem to diminish in my eyes when I see this. And this is only accentuated by the fact that the protagonist would never even have become a geisha had a man not intervened! Perhaps, it was the time, or the place, or just plain destiny.