Book Review – Memoirs of a Geisha By Arthur Golden

Title: Memoirs of a Geisha
Author: 
Arthur Golden
Format: 
Paperback
Published: 
1997

Memoirs of a Geisha is the story of a young girl who is sold along with her sister into prostitution.  The older sister is taken directly to a brothel which she soon flees, while the younger is taken to an okiya to be raised as a Geisha.  In the real world, it was integral to the role of a Geisha that she is not a prostitute, but in Arthur Golden’s world Geisha sell their virginity to the highest bidder and must work as a mistress for hire to exceedingly wealthy men to be “successful”.  At 14 our young girl, who goes through three names but ends up Sayuri, falls for a man in his mid forties and spends the next fifteen years or so obsessing over him until she finally gets to be his mistress.

Skip the book, see the movie, then go read a book or two about actual Geisha.  The movie garnered its own share of criticism by casting Chinese actresses in the main roles and inaccurately representing Geisha dress and culture, but even so, it is visually stunning and well acted.  Details of the film bothered me, and I had hoped Hollywood had not done the book full justice.  No such luck.  This is a case of the film improving on the book, trimming down some of the more disturbing elements like Dr. Crab who not only makes a practice of paying large sums for the privilege of deflowering the young Geisha but keeps a collection of their blood from the encounter as well. If this guy isn’t creepy enough for you, the woman who is supposed to be training and guiding young Sayuri is fully aware of this creep’s practices but still goes out of the way to get him in on the virginity bidding for her own financial gain.  Even her love interest was involved in arranging this fate for her, though he had hoped originally to do the deflowering himself.  Basically, everyone in Sayuri’s life is using her for sex, either on the buying or selling end.  She’s positioned as a high-end prostitute with other talents, but the focus is selling her body more than her entertaining skills.

Historically and even currently young girls go through similar hardships, but it’s not the way of Geisha.  Golden has heavily sexualized one of the few outlets for women in 17th century to WWII era Japan to pursue independent careers which weren’t dependent on marriage or prostitution.  Geisha did originate in brothels, originally men but the role was adopted by women who entertained alongside high class prostitutes who had their own ranking system.  Geisha were not allowed to be prostitutes in part because it conflicted with the courtesans’ business.

Certainly a few of them crossed the line, and there were prostitutes who presented themselves as Geisha and Geisha who turned to prostitution in desperate economic times.  However, Golden presents these as standard and ritualized Geisha practices, as though he can’t believe in a world before radios or television men would pay women for their entertainment skills.

Geisha (a word that mean “artist”) are skilled performers who might specialize as singers, musicians, and/or dancers.  They also provide company and conversation similar to an escort.  And yes, it is more than a little offensive to suggest they couldn’t possibly hold onto a patron without also being his mistress or they need to auction off their virginity to graduate to a new level of Geisha.  It would be like suggesting Michelangelo couldn’t get a job unless he was also putting out.  Golden thanks the real Geisha Mineko Iwasaki for granting him an interview, even though she had asked him to keep her name private.  She in turn sued him for breach of contract and defamation of character in 2001, and published her autobiography Geisha of Gion in 2002 to help give the world a more accurate view of Geisha life.

This book made me kind of mad.  Golden sets up a pretence of historical accuracy, only to take us through a series of what are essentially rapes, have a pretty young girl obsess over a middle-aged man, and then the publisher has the nerve to call this “romantic, erotic, and suspenseful” when it’s none of these things.  If I was being flattering, I might call it beautifully tragic, because it takes a resilient person to survive sexual slavery, even with comfortable trappings, and the kimono and setting descriptions are often lovely.  If I take a deep breath and try to see past my indignation, the writing is passable with strong descriptions and believable characters but not gripping or entertaining.  Sayuri is a sympathetic but somewhat bland narrator.  The plot meanders, which is perhaps more realistic, but if you’re going to ignore realism to pander to fatalistic sex fantasy, then I’d much rather have a tight plot and clever narration.

As with the Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (which is also fiction), the writer can’t even give his subject the consideration that they might be competent enough to write their own books, but must wrap it in pretense of being recorded for posterity by a “real writer” who also happens to be a male very similar to the actual male writer.  Maybe that’s to help bridge us between the male name on the cover and female narrator, but I’m developing a strong distaste for fake memoire fiction.

Final verdict is 2 out of 5.  Golden’s writing is solid enough I might try other works by him.  He comes off as a capable writer, but lazy or indifferent in the wrong places, at least in this book.

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