In Memoirs of a Geisha, we enter a world where appearances are paramount; where a girl’s virginity is auctioned to the highest bidder; where women are trained to beguile the most powerful men; and where love, always elusive, is scorned as illusion.
Sayuri’s story begins in a poor fishing village in 1929, when, as a nine-year-old with unusual blue-gray eyes, she is taken from her home and sold into slavery to a renowned geisha house. Through her eyes, we see the decadent heart of Gion–the geisha district of Kyoto–with its marvelous teahouses and theaters, narrow back alleys, ornate temples, and artists’ streets. And we witness her transformation as she learns the rigorous arts of the geisha: dance and music; wearing kimono, elaborate makeup and hair; pouring sake to reveal just a touch of inner wrist; competing with a jealous rival for men’s solicitude and the money that goes with it. But as World War II erupts and the geisha houses are forced to close, Sayuri, with little money and even less food, must reinvent herself all over again to find a rare kind of freedom on her own terms. ~Book jacket copy
Warning: Book discussion contains spoilers.
This is an engrossing, enchanting book. Golden did a remarkable job evoking the time and place, and especially, the character of Sayuri. Several times, I had to remind myself that it was fiction, it was so good at drawing me in and convincing me of its reality. Even knowing that, I frequently wondered if some of the characters and action were based on real people and events. A little online research turned up some heated arguments about the reality of the novel. (I think the second part of the title, “A Novel”, and the Acknowledgements, which begin, “Although the character of Sayuri and her story are completely invented,” should have been enough to put paid to such debates, but that’s the Internet for you: no shortage of ill-informed opinions aggressively presented.)
I found the world of the geisha profoundly intriguing: the highly-codified system of etiquette, the elaborate rituals of costuming and grooming, and the intensive arts training were all mesmerizing. And yet, I was troubled by my fascination with it: I’m fortunate to be living probably the most liberated female life in the history of the world, that of a 21st-century American woman; what attraction should this restricted, male-dependent, sexually- and socially-constrained life hold for me? I couldn’t stop imagining donning a kimono and tottering through lantern-lit streets to hold court at a teahouse; I fantasized about replicating the bonding rituals depicted with the people most important to me. I wouldn’t really trade my modern, self-determined life for one in which I was owned by someone else, my time and body traded for someone else’s profit…and yet, the attraction to the geisha life lingered.
Part of it is the appeal of structure. Certainly, it takes a lot of work to learn the rules of such a complex society, but once you do, you can give yourself over to it, and it actually becomes easier to live day-to-day. You don’t have to think at every moment what the right thing to say or do is; interactions are determined by the relative status of the people involved. There is little room for self-expression, true, but no room at all for insecurity about one’s role. Those niggling self-doubts that so afflicts us in our “classless’ society”–Who am I? What should I be doing? Have I made the right choices?–have no place in this sort of world. It’s a comforting, in a way; we all seek to limit our vast world of choices to some extent–there’s simply too much information to assimilate it all and make decisions, so we choose systems that frame and filter our reality: we choose a religion, and it tells us how to make the biggest decisions in life–marriage, children, etc.; we choose a political affiliation, and it tells us how we should think about issues that are too complex to explore in detail; we choose a hobby, and it helps us fill time we otherwise don’t know what to do with. We all make choices that help us limit how much energy we have to put into thinking our way through the average day.
The other part of the geisha’s appeal to me was pointed out by my very insightful partner, Ken. “It seems like a game,” he said. “And the more difficult or arcane the rules of a game, the more you enjoy being good at it.” Ah, yes; he knows me all too well. He put his finger right on it: at my safe remove from the actualities of geisha life, it does look like an amazingly fun live-action role-playing game: pretty yourself up in a glamorous silk gown and hit the streets, fluttering and flirting your way to the high score.
The language in this book is one of its prime attractions for me–both the snippets of Japanese we learn, and the imagery Golden uses. The metaphors are so pitch-perfect, they contribute much to the reality of Sayuri’s character. She just sounds like we expect a woman of her station to sound. I wonder how much Sayuri’s mode of expression sounds like that of Mineko Iwasaki, the geisha Golden interviewed during his research for the novel. (Iwasaki has published her autobiography, so I hope to find out for myself.) The imagery fit the story and character so well, that it wasn’t until late in the book that I realized how impressed I was with it.
I felt it most particularly in the little stories of life in her childhood village that Sayuri uses to illustrate feelings she can’t otherwise put into words. An example: at a pivotal moment, Sayuri is rescued from ruin and despair by an almost magical turn of events; to describe her feelings, she tells the tale of a small boy who climbed too far up a tree and became stuck. His father, alerted by other children, ran to the tree just in time to catch the boy as he fell, saving him from the rocks below. “We all of us cried out in delight, and skipped around at the edge of the pond while Gisuke stood blinking his eyes very quickly, little tears of astonishment gathering on his lashes. Now I knew exactly what Gisuke must have felt. I had been plummeting toward the rocks, and the Chairman stepped out to catch me.” This little story so perfectly illustrated what it’s like to be shocked by a sudden, happy turn of events that it forced me out of the story to admire the words.
The crux of the story hinges on Sayuri’s choice between giving herself to a man she likes and owes much to, who will take good care of her, and betraying that man for a chance to be with the man she has secretly loved for years. She contemplates the idea that this second man, the ideal she has worked toward since childhood, whom she has molded herself and directed her life toward winning, may never be hers. She muses, “What if I came to the end of my life and realized I’d spent every day watching for a man who would never come to me?” Yes, what if?
Should we hold out for romantic love, or settle for companionable comfort? How long do we wait for True Love to come along? When do we give up the vigil and accept the proposal of a nice-but-boring person who will keep us from loneliness, even if they fail to inflame our senses? It’s a game of risk we’re all familiar with; which is better: to live in hope of love, even though that may leave us lonely in our old age; or to take our best option now, and suffer the consequences if a grand passion presents itself somewhere down the line, and we aren’t free to indulge it? Isn’t that what all those “If we’re both still single when we’re 45, we’ll marry each other” pacts are about: insurance against making the wrong decision in the love vs. security debate?
This was the point upon which I most related to Sayuri, having done my share of living in romantic suspense, and having been rewarded for it. We each make our own decisions on the point, and no-one else can fault us for them, but the book seems to have an opinion, albeit one obliquely presented. Looking back over her tumultuous life, Sayuri says, “Now I know our world is no more permanent than a wave rising on the ocean. Whatever our struggles and triumphs, however we may suffer them, all too soon they bleed into a wash, just like watery ink on paper.” If it’s all washed away in the end, if we simply fade into oblivion, then we must make the best of what we have while we live. Sayuri’s choice, the choice the book implicitly endorses, is to try for the highest and best she can hope for. Hold out for life’s greatest reward; hold out for passion.