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Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
“…Though I must say, I lived in that contented state a long while before I was finally able to look back and admit how desolate my life had once been. I’m sure I never could have told my story otherwise; I don’t think any of us can speak frankly about pain until we are no longer enduring it.”(Golden, 419)
Oh, and what a horrible and persistent pain it was that the geisha Sayuri had to endure. This is a story that masquerades as a biographical account of a girl growing up a geisha, but is actually an intensely honest tale of courage, loneliness, endurance, love, surrender and destiny. Memoirs of a Geisha follows the real life experiences of Chiyo Minoru, a girl born in a small, Japanese fishing village, who later went on to become one of the most famous geisha of the age under the adopted name of Sayuri, or “Sayuri-San”, as she was known to friends and acquaintances. It is one of those novels that educates you, but thrills and enthralls you at the same time because you know so much, you could be a part of history. While reading, I felt as if I had become an honorary member of Japanese society. I was learning so much at one time; the culture, the relationships between people, and how affection is shown.
Most importantly though, is that Sayuri’s tale attempts to form a clearer and more accurate definition of the term “Geisha”, and subsequently, their lifestyle. I was under the impression, as I’m sure many people are, that geishas are simply more decorative versions of the North American prostitute. Through the insights and emotional imagery of this woman’s journey, however, anyone with such assumptions is proven wrong. Though it seems that these women remain always in the service of men, it is more the role of an entertainer and companion than an agent of sex. Depending on how you look at it, the fact that these various businessmen and upper class tycoons are so lonely and unsatisfied they must stray from their families and have false faced women serve them tea makes them the weaker ones.
One of the most significant things about this book is that it accomplishes a rare feat: a woman’s voice successfully captured in a man’s words. Along with the style of memoir turned fiction (or non fiction?), the result is this unique offering of a novel which offers no clue as to the multiple genders involved in its creation. Sayuri’s every emotion, every fear, triumph and disappointment is described perfectly until it is stripped raw to the bone. There are no secrets here, and Golden does not trivialize the many complicated feelings of a girl, as many male authors in this position do. Memoirs is a full and detailed exploration of Sayuri’s life, the intricacies and disturbing truths of which are not left to the imagination, but more to the heart. Golden forces us to not only sympathize, but to emphasize as well, placing ourselves in the fascinating yet difficult role a geisha has to play. How different our lives would be, if we were these women.
In the cinematic film version of this book, there is an instrumental piece called “The Chairman’s Waltz”. I find this worth mentioning because this one song acts as a metaphor that encapsulates the truth of the story. While there is no outright message or moral to it, Memoirs plays out like the dance of a prisoner before execution or a bride being sealed into a loveless marriage. The sad certainties of being a geisha, knowing that you’ll be doing the same thing, entertaining and hiding your true self for a man night after night. Every happy, hopeful moment is overshadowed by the knowledge that it will soon end and reality will resume, just as the ecstasy of a beautiful dance only lasts the duration of the song.
“The Chairman’s Waltz” has this imagery about it, the same imagery that exists throughout all 428 pages of this novel. There is such a visceral beauty that leaves a sweet taste in your mouth, making you hungry for more. Sayuri’s story is told in a manner of fascination and wonder, not with an arrogance that makes the scenery and emotion seem tired and cliché. The adventures and experiences of the main character are exotic, yet relatable, which motivates us to read more. It is this combination of what we know and what we aren’t accustomed to, things we don’t want to know but recognize that keeps us going.
Memoirs of a Geisha is a journey that gives readers a fresh perspective, but shows them that they are the same as the girls beneath the white paint. Another quote near the end of the novel sees one of the characters admitting that the things he remembers are more real than those with him now. This must be true for Sayuri as well, who lets us live her life just as she did, and must have gone through everything a second time in recounting it. In our lives today, we feel this way too, stretching the past into the now. Whenever there is sadness, we feel as if it is the end of the world. From reading this novel, though, the things we have become more precious and invaluable; the choices and freedoms that we possess are especially limitless in comparison to that of the geisha. I strongly recommend that you not only read Memoirs, but allow it to serve as a reminder that life is good once we realize and appreciate what we have right before us; in fact, it’s great.
Plot/Storyline = 4/5
Characters/Character Development = 5/5
Ability to keep the reader engaged = 5/5
Overall impact of the message = 3.5/5