Where to start with Memoirs of a Geisha? Published in 1997, it was written by Arthur Golden, a born-and-bred American and not, in fact, a geisha. During the three days it took me to read this book, I kept trying to remind myself to take the novel’s explorations of geisha culture and tradition with a hefty pinch of salt… but it was difficult. You’d be forgiven for forgetting that the “memoir” in question is not truly a memoir, but a fictional tale passing itself off for one.
Golden’s style is simple but, if anything, all the more poignant for the absence of verbacious flourishes. Chiyo/ Sayuri’s (what she is later called upon completing her geisha training) voice seems to guide us through the rich tapestry of the Japanese geisha tradition, giving us a series of glimpses into a realm that is rarely revealed. The occult nature of the lives and practices of current and past geisha layers this “memoir” with intrigue. At times, you will feel as though you’ve been singled out, specially elected to have a taste of this exotic tale. And you will repeatedly forget that her account is actually the fictitious product of a white man’s imagination.
Be generous with Memoirs of a Geisha; the lull of the first few pages is soon replaced by a rather fast-paced transition from Chiyo/ Sayuri’s impoverished home to the confusing milieu of the geisha in Gion. It is far from home for both narrator and reader, an alien setting that wrenches her from the comfort of home (however rudimentary it may have been) and forces her to fend for herself.
Due to the nature of a memoir, Sayuri’s mature voice suffuses the narrative and we are presented with a double vision of her upbringing; Chiyo’s naïve, frightened, determined perspective and Sayuri’s wise, nostalgic and playful one. Maybe that sounds as though it may be confusing, but the dual visions fuse together and provide a richer reading experience rather than a hazy one. Of course, as a reader you are closer to Chiyo than Sayuri, and some of her earlier comments in the novel become clearer as the narrative unfurls.
I’ll confess that I fell into the trap presented by the (concluding) framing device. Maybe this highlights my own naivety, or maybe it is merely a testament to Golden’s masterful trickery – I’ll let you decide. Either way, this book made me realise my complete ignorance of Japanese culture and the ongoing – albeit dying – geisha tradition. Is the geisha merely a glorified prostitute? Is she the Madonna in the geisha-prostitute/ Madonna-whore dichotomy? Perhaps, on a baser level, it's Golden's way of fetishising geisha culture. Or mayne, it's a way for women to manipulate the monetisation of female bodies and use this patriarchal economy to their advantage. Such questions are gently weaved into the novel, and all the while Golden undercuts Chiyo/ Sayuri’s voice with his own - thus complicating our reading of this novel-disguised-as-memoir.
It’s impossible not to lose yourself in this heteroglossic tale – but that’s part of the fun. Just be sure to find your way again.