Alright, this is a conflicting one. I decided to read this book as I saw it listed on a few of those “100 books to read before you die” or “how many of these essential books have you read: most people have only read 8” lists you sometimes see floating about, and now I wonder… why? Why is it on those lists? Is it really considered a classic? Has it really help up over time? Is there not more scrutiny of it now and given all the developments after it’s release? Which, I really didn’t know about at the time, and am now aware of, and is therefore part of why I find this read a bit conflicting when coming to review it. It’s a little bit of that “looking at the art separately” from the creator idea. In this case, it may be more so considering the time period in which it was written and whether or not over time it holds up. I don’t know, I just found that a lot of what was going on in this novel made me want to ask questions or be concerned, yet nothing was really looked at very critically? More just, romanticizing everything, if that makes sense.
As for the contents of the novel, Memoirs of a Geisha follows the life of a well-known (fictional) geisha from Japan named Sayuri as she retells her life’s story. As a young girl, Sayuri (then known as Chiyo) and her sister were essentially taken from her life in a small fishing town to be sent to an okiya in Kyoto’s Gion district, which is the most prominent geisha district in Kyoto. From there, we see her as she struggles to learn to work within the house she now resides, trying to become a geisha, and then work as one as the years go by and the nation of Japan is affected by World War II. Issues that come into play within Sayuri’s life are the politics of becoming a geisha, the competition of other women working within the profession, and garnering the attention of men who can make or break a women’s livelihood in Gion. One of the biggest overarching threads, however, is Sayuri’s affection for a man known as the Chairman, who she develops feelings for over the course of her life. Fundamentally, this book could be viewed as a story of overcoming obstacles and working hard to make a place in life, while also delving into a culture that many deem to be both beautiful and mysterious. And that’s where my first conflict of the mind came into play while reading this book.
Before reading this novel, I was aware of the film that came out in 2005 based off of it winning some Academy Awards for design and such. And… that’s about it. Oh, and I have a tiny little bit of knowledge regarding what it is that geishas are and do. I was not, however, aware of some of the controversy regarding this novel and the contents within it. You may have known this already but for the sake of people like myself who did not, here is the gist:
Arthur Golden’s novel is a fictional novel, yet there is a reality to it, in that he uses real locations and a real culture to try and paint a story that feels real. He obviously did research into different names, places, customs, etc, but how much of this is truly accurate? Enter Mineko Iwasaki, a retired geisha who was interviewed by Golden for the novel, yet later sued when her identity was not kept anonymous despite having agreed upon this. Having her identity released led her to face serious backlash from the geisha community, which traditionally had a certain code of silence or secrecy to it, to the point that she reportedly received death threats for both dispensing this knowledge, and also for information in the novel being inaccurate and painting geisha as little more than prostitutes. Iwasaki later wrote her own autobiography which reportedly paints a very different picture of the life of geisha in the 20th century. The issue was eventually settled out of court and I am now actually pretty interested to hear what sort of life she depicts.
And so, I wonder what the truth is: is this story factual but now Iwasaki is trying to cover her tracks? Or has Arthur Golden fantasized this “mysterious” culture and tried to pass it off as reality (or at least, a realistic fiction)? It is hard to say. And does it matter if we are aware of this novel being fiction in the first place? Hmmmm, maybe it does if this is one of the most well-known works surrounding the life and culture of geisha’s, which many take to be pretty accurate or as realism.
But setting that controversy aside for a moment, what if we just looked at the novel for what it is: separating the art from the artist, as I said earlier. Because fundamentally, at it’s heart Memoirs of a Geisha is a story about a young woman overcoming a lot of hardships, working hard and being able to make a life for herself, following what she believes to be her destiny. And really, the idea behind it is quite sweet, and the writing is lovely and flowing with a few beautiful instances here and there. Yet at other times I feel like perhaps the author got a little caught up in the poetic nature of writing and ended up creating something that aims to be profound and emotive, but is really just word-salad (on more than one occasion during reading I thought to myself, “I see him trying to say something but this just doesn’t mean anything…”).
And while the story does aim to capture the beauty and artistry of geisha life, succeeding in a few parts, there is also something so un-critical in examining this young girl’s life and the things that goes on in it. It’s almost like a preoccupation with romanticizing this “strange” and “other” culture and traditions, to the point where the character we are supposed to follow through this fantastical and beautiful world does little besides look pretty and do what others want from her.
This is not to say that I think Sayuri is a total wet-noodle who doesn’t work hard, but that the women in the novel (aka, the whole center of this world) have little to no agency. Or rather, if they do, they are painted as cruel, old, or haggard. Everything is done and decided by men: the way the women speak, act, how they dress, it’s all very beautiful and poised, but ultimately for the purpose of men to view and grow fond of. It is especially annoying to me having the conversations of the men and the geisha together portrayed, as it so often seems like the geisha are said to be clever but put on this “don’t ask me, I’m just a silly girl who makes silly comments!” cutesy performance. You know Cool Girl in Gone Girl? Not everything is done for men, and yet… it feels like it in this novel. Well, it’s either done for a man or because their fortunes said it was a fortuitous day. The geisha’s whole life and livelihood depends on it, after all! And not to mention, Sayuri’s whole life is essentially based on the fact that she is extremely pretty (but doesn’t know it, of course! Because as soon as you know you look good as a woman, you are nasty and conceited like the character Hatsumono is portrayed in the novel. Didn’t you know this?), and people are constantly telling her what to do and how to do it. Even when Sayuri does decide to take some action in her life and follow her heart, only to find that she may have made a mistake, she is “saved” by a man, and we find that her whole life and career as a geisha has really been a product of a man’s doing. And when women are supportive of one another in the novel, it often feels like in addition to their fondness of one another, there is also some other gain to be made from it. The women in this novel are never really a united front, but super catty with one another and are fighting over the male attention to get ahead. And I get being competitive like that, especially in an industry that relies on male patrons, but can we not ever have a story where women are maybe sad about not getting as far as their friends, but still super happy for their successes? I may not be super happy about where my life is right now, but that doesn’t mean I’m not happy for my friends who are finding their own happiness and living their dreams! We don’t have to fight amongst ourselves all the time: that’s how we are kept down, by not uniting. But at this point I may be reading into this aspect of the novel and it’s relation to how I feel about the world a little too much.
But in any case, the artistry behind geishas truly is remarkable, and I feel like Golden sees this, and that may be why he wanted to create a beautiful picture. The problem is that by so heavily romanticizing everything, it almost feels like in a way he is romanticizing the suffering involved. I couldn’t help but feel gross when the life of these young girls were painted in such an uncritical fashion with simply the narrator’s voice saying “ this was traditional” or “how it was at the time” as if just because that’s the way things were, we shouldn’t question it. It’s almost like a cop-out, having the narrator just unquestioning and supporting everything like this. I mean, Sayuri and her sister were essentially sold, and her sister became a sex slave for a while, all while they were both teenagers. These young apprentices are shown as going around and getting accustomed to the men while the men look them over to grow fond of them while they are but 15 years old or so: they are groomed to catch the attention of grown men when they are still children themselves. Sayuri was even seen catching grown men’s eyes at the young age of 12. And it’s just a part of the story, and I was really creeped out by it. She meets the Chairman when she is 14 years old and decides she wants nothing more than to be this grown man’s mistress. And look, I had crushed on older men and celebrities when I was young, but this book painted that attitude as just so normal and not to be wondered about. There are also parts about people fighting to pay for these young girls’ virginities (which a lot of geishas have since said is not a real thing that happens)? It’s like those creepy men who are just waiting for young girls to “turn 18” so it’s not illegal. But it’s still gross for you to be leering at a teenage girl, you scumbag! Oh, but of course in this novel, it is seen as some sort of big success if you are able to sell your virginity for a high price, which means men desire you more than other girls. (Me, internally sighing: the sexual approval of men is not the end-all-be-all). And when this occurs for Sayuri, it is not shown as a romantic moment but very clinical, which I guess isn’t a bad way to do it, but then after the fact it’s like she’s had some sort of “awakening” because a random man dispassionately shoved his penis inside her, and she suddenly acts like she’s more mature or aware now than those girls who have not yet had this experience. Like… okay. I guess. Kind of an antiquated view of things, which is why I earlier said that maybe this book just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny over time (it was originally published in 1997, so 20 years ago now).
I guess, overall, it’s just really not critical about anything. Or doesn’t really give explanations as to how certain things affect people: for instance, how do the wives of these men feel about them having mistresses? Do they know? If they are cool with it, that’s all good, I support healthy polyamory. But if they aren’t, then that’s another matter. And I just feel like so many things are spoken of so matter-of-fact like “that’s just how it is” with a shrug, but that doesn’t mean we can’t question our social norms and customs and how things go. Are people being hurt by this? Is there a darker side here? Because it sounds like there definitely might be! But then again, what is the truth! This is what I mean by things not holding up over time: these attitudes are not the same as we have now, and even just 20 years ago we thought and behaved differently in regards to a lot of things. And especially when I look at the fact that this novel seems as though it was written to a more Western audience, I can’t help but feel like this romanticizing of the traditions and life as being so beautiful is presented in a way to say “look how they do things”, as if it’s this voyeuristic look at this mysterious “other,” in particular because the subject of geisha’s itself is often considered to be elusive and secretive.
Ultimately, Memoirs of a Geisha is not a bad novel, and the writing is quite lovely. It’s just that I couldn’t help but question everything I was reading and wonder a) What is the truth? And b) Are you really going to just skip by these certain topics and moments as if they are nothing? I mean, maybe I do have a tendency to overthink things, but that’s where my brain was all while reading this novel. I don’t know if I liked it or how to really feel about it. But what I do know is that the artistry of geishas is beautiful, as are some of the streets of the Gion district (which I recently saw during a trip to Japan). Perhaps I need to learn more about this culture and profession now.