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Memoirs of a Geisha, published in 1977, is a historical novel written by Arthur Golden. He had received a degree in art history, specializing in Japanese art, therefore, producing a beautifully written novel about a geisha in Japan during the times of before and after World War II. A geisha is basically a Japanese woman who has been trained to become a professional singer and or dancer to entertain men at parties, banquets, or festivals. These women would be known as “artists”, as that is where the term derived from-gei meaning “arts” and sha meaning “person”. The novel is narrated from the point of view of Sayuri Nitta, a retired geisha, whom the author had interviewed. Furthermore, as for the purpose of this book, the author states that, “There may well be no better record of the strange life of a geisha than the one Sayuri offers” (2). The setting of the novel was in a popular geisha district of Gion in Kyoto, and we are given in great detail throughout the story of what a geisha’s life was like.
Sayuri recalls her early childhood by the name of Sakamoto Chiyo. She wasn’t born to be a Kyoto geisha. She was only a fisherman’s daughter from a little town called Yoroido. She got sold into an okiya in Kyoto when she was only nine years old, and it was because of her dying mother, that her father sent her and her sister away. Chiyo was taken in by an okiya to train to become a geisha, while her sister was sent to a rather more unfortunate place, being forced to work as a prostitute. Chiyo soon meets a successful, but hateful and cold-blooded, geisha in her okiya, by the name of Hatsumomo. She treated Chiyo horribly, and got her into trouble many times even when she was entirely innocent. Several months had passed, and then one day, Chairman Iwamura notices Chiyo crying in the streets, and gave her his handkerchief and some money to her to buy some shaved ice with syrup to cheer her up. The Chairman’s kindness had inspired her to become a great geisha one day. We later learn in the story that he was the head of an electricity company. In Chiyo’s teenage years, she worked under the guidance of one of the most well known geishas in Kyoto by the name of Mameha. This was when Chiyo’s name had been changed to “Sayuri” after becoming Mameha’s “younger sister”, making Sayuri dependent of Mameha on the road to becoming a geisha. After attending many parties, and entertaining particular men, Sayuri’s mizuage, virginity, was set at a record price. This made Hatsumomo extremely jealous, because the owner of their okiya adopted Sayuri as her “daughter”, instead of Pumpkin, an apprentice geisha under Hatsumomo’s guidance at the time. Sayuri continued working hard to become a geisha. She learns more and more about the arts of a geisha, such as dance and music, wearing layers of garments under a kimono, wearing elaborate make up, such as the “China Clay” (47), and hair styles, such as the “split peach” (163), and of course, the money that goes with the role of being a geisha.
Throughout the novel, we witness a transformation of Sayuri, into becoming a well-known and successful geisha. Some time afterwards, World War II erupted and the geisha houses were forced to close. This affected the income of Sayuri’s okiya, and therefore, left her with little money and little food, also affecting her physical features as a geisha. The story goes on about how she had lived through those times, near the end of the war, worrying about what the future held, and if she would ever get back to being that geisha again, and especially if she would ever see the Chairman again, in whom she had fantasized a lot about throughout the book. By this time, Sayuri looked much like a peasant and not a geisha anymore. Some time three years after the end of the war, she worked her way back into being a geisha again; all the geisha districts in Japan had been reopened already by then. After going through a few more troubles, Sayuri finally got what she wanted, and that was “freedom” in her terms, but really was just happiness. Mameha had once said, “We don’t become geisha because we want our lives to be happy; we become geisha because we have no choice” (294). After having become the Chairman’s mistress, she was no longer considered a geisha, and that was where the “freedom” comes in.
Overall, the book does a good job at informing the reader about what the life of a geisha was like. The author obviously had done extensive research on geishas in Japan. Before coming across this book, I had no idea what a geisha was. After reading this book, I have been fairly well informed of the life of a geisha. For example, the term “younger sister” as I mentioned earlier, was “the time a girl is finally ready to make her debut as an apprentice,” and particularly by that time “she needs to have established a relationship with a more experienced geisha” (128). The author goes into greater detail on the following page of how this “Older Sister” and “Younger Sister” arrangement worked. Another example would be that the role of geisha ends when she becomes a mistress, as I had also mentioned earlier. There are plenty of other examples throughout the book, in fact, too many that to come upon and notice all them would not be easy; some of the geisha facts were written in one sentence, backed up with details as to what was going on that they can easily be missd. Moreover, the fact that the author can produce a fictional story backed up with these real pieces of information, really made it seem like all the events in the entire story had really happened, including the existence of all the characters, in addition to the historical events occurring in the background to this story.
Speaking of historical events, I’d like to criticize the organization of this book. The way that this whole book has been put together really makes it feels as if the reader was reading an actual diary, just simply a document of this person’s life told in her point of view. Many dates were used throughout the book, years, in particular. I’ve never seen so many years used in a historical fiction book in my life. Arthur Golden used years and a bit of information of what was going on in the world in that given year. I think this was what can make a historical fiction book seem like it had actually happened. From the several historical fiction books I’ve read in the past, they lack a lot of historical context, in which, I can’t even remember all the historical fiction books I’ve read because I have most likely considered them plain fiction.
Last, I’d also like to criticize the writing style of this novel. As I keep mentioning about how “real” this historical fiction book is, it also has to deal with the way Arthur Golden told this story. He provides so much detail for the reader, including the descriptions and actions of the other characters in the novel in Sayuri’s point of view and all of her thoughts too, that the book is quite lengthy. I can confirm that there isn’t dialogue on every page. I wasn’t used to that at first, but as I continued on reading, I figured that these details really helped me with keeping tracking of the events in the order that they occurred in the story. The author also used a lot of metaphors throughout the story. For example, “I felt as the waves of the ocean must feel when clouds have blocked the warmth of the sun” (191). This was when Sayuri found out that Hatsumomo, being the hateful person that she is, had gotten in the way of Sayuri in becoming a successful geisha. I particularly remembered this quote because it was placed as just one paragraph in the context, and was a relatively perfect metaphor given the situation Sayuri was in. With this in mind, the author also did a great job in the paragraphing. Sometimes there would countless paragraphs of plain text before a dialogue, and his careful paragraphing made it seem as if every single line was important to what was happening at the moment and the entire story, and they were!
Overall the book gives a compellingly detailed story of a geisha’s life during the times of World War II. It was worth every single minute of my time to read this lengthy and interesting book. I’ve learned a lot about geisha, Japanese culture, a little bit about World War II, and even several Japanese terms. Since there aren’t many avid readers in this world from what I see, I wouldn’t say I would recommend this book to anyone. True, it is a long story with a bunch of pages to read, but honestly, in my opinion, it’s not even that long; it is so beautifully written that I wished I could write something like Memoirs of a Geisha. When I find the time to, I would certainly watch the film for this book, in which, I think many would consider doing after reading an exceptional book.
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