Friday, May 15, 2009

39. Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden

History: The book was published in 1997. After the Japanese edition of Memoirs of a Geisha was published, Arthur Golden was sued for breach of contract and defamation of character by Mineko Iwasaki, a retired geisha he had interviewed for background information while writing the novel. The plaintiff asserted that Golden had agreed to protect her anonymity, due to the traditional code of silence about their clients, if she told him about her life as a geisha. However, Golden listed Iwasaki as a source in his acknowledgments for the novel, causing her to face a serious backlash. She even received death threats.. Arthur Golden of his behalf countered that he had tapes of the conversations Eventually, in 2003, Golden's publisher settled with Iwasaki out of court for an undisclosed sum of money.
Iwasaki later went on to write her own autobiography, which shows a very different picture of twentieth-century geisha than the one shown in Golden's novel.
Plot: The novel is told from the point of view of Nitta Sayuri, a retired geisha in her seventies, living in the Waldorf Towers in New York City. She is interviewed by Jakob Haarhuis, a professor at New York University, who is credited as the story's translator, although he is a fictional character himself. This is apparently a reference to Golden's interviewing of a retired geisha as part of his research for the novel. The story is told in a flashback format, with continuous references to the time between Sayuri's career and the time she is being interviewed. She also periodically explains different aspects of geisha life.
Sayuri recalls her early childhood as Chiyo Sakamoto, a young girl who, along with her sister Satsu, is sold into a life of servitude by her elderly father and dying mother when she is nine years old. Chiyo is taken in by the unsympathetic proprietress of the Nitta geisha house, whom she addresses as 'Mother'. She befriends Mother's sister ('Auntie') and another young girl in the house, Pumpkin, but also earns the jealous ire of the head geisha of the house, Hatsumomo. Chiyo spends most of her remaining childhood working as a maid to pay off several large debts: her purchase price; the soiling of a kimono owned by a well-known geisha, Mameha, which Chiyo was blackmailed into defacing by Hatsumomo; and her medical bill, incurred after she injures herself while trying to escape. Her sister is sold to a brothel, but she eventually succeeds in escaping, never to be seen by Chiyo again.
One day while crying in the street, the young Chiyo is noticed by a passerby, Chairman Ken Iwamura, who buys her an iced sorbet and gives her his handkerchief with some money. Inspired by his act of kindness, Chiyo resolves to become a geisha so that she may one day become a part of the Chairman's life. Late in her teenage years, Chiyo is taken under the wing of Mameha, one of the top geisha in Kyoto at the time. Under Mameha's tutelage, the girl Chiyo becomes Sayuri, the most famous geisha in all Gion (Kyoto). Her growing success impacts on the careers and lives of two geishas living in her same geisha house (okiya), Hatsumomo and Pumpkin. Hatsumomo seeks to destroy Sayuri’s career, but ends up destroying her own when, in a jealous fit, she bites one of her clients. Sayuri is selected over Pumpkin as the heir of the okiya, earning the name Nitta Sayuri, and causing Pumpkin to despair.
Through her work as a geisha, Sayuri is reunited with the Chairman, whom she has secretly loved since she was a girl. But her intentions of spending time with the Chairman are curtailed several times when she inadvertently attracts other clients seeking to become her patron, including the Chairman's business partner and close friend, Toshikazu Nobu. Her successful career is cut short by the outbreak of World War II, and while the safety of both Sayuri and Mameha is ensured by the Chairman and Nobu, they must endure a life of hard labor. After the war, Sayuri is reunited with Mameha and Pumpkin, and they become geishas once more.
Nobu and the Chairman ask the three geishas for their help in entertaining a client who can help to restart their business, which was all but destroyed in the war. During their business trip, Nobu proposes to become Sayuri's patron. Distraught, she devises a plan to humiliate herself in front of Nobu, thereby freeing herself to be with the Chairman. Instead, she is humiliated in front of the Chairman by Pumpkin, who still harbors resentment toward her. Sayuri despairs that her dream of being with the Chairman is lost.
The Chairman eventually arranges to meet Sayuri. He finally reveals to her that he knows she is Chiyo, and that he was responsible for sending Mameha to her so that she may fulfill her dreams of becoming a geisha. He also confesses to understanding why she humiliated herself, in trying to free herself for him. Sayuri finally reveals her love to the Chairman, which she has been harboring for more than fifteen years. The story ends with Sayuri recounting her subsequent life in New York City as the Chairman's mistress.
Review: A book about an expensive Japanese prostitute and the culture that perpetuates that sort of artificial beauty and love. Poetic, intimate and moving at times, this is a good book. I enjoyed the novel for its reconstruction and images of Japan.
Opening Line: “One evening in the spring of 1946 when I was a boy of 14, my father took me to a dance performance in Kyoto.” Closing Line: “Whatever our struggles and triumphs, however we may suffer them, all too soon they bleed into a wash, just like watery ink on paper.”
Quotes: "...we can never flee the misery that is within us,"
Rating: very good

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