Memoirs of a Geisha is a historic novel by first-time author Arthur Golden and is the result of 15 years of work by the novelist.
Golden studied Japanese language and culture and worked in Kyoto, before returning home to the U.S. He created a story that is the result of extensive research on Japanese culture and tradition in pre and post-war Japan, an interview with geisha Mineko Iwasaki, visits to geisha district Gion, in Kyoto, and actually watching and photographing the ritual of geisha getting dressed in their kimono, with the aid of professional dressers.
The initial draft for the novel was written in third person which wasn’t captivating enough, so he then changed it and re-wrote everything in first person. I’d imagine that doing this without having lived these experiences is a hard enough job, but Golden did it beautifully. The most peculiar thing about this first person tale, is that this is a male writer telling the story of a woman and not just any woman – this is a coming of age plot, so he needed to put himself in the shoes of a child, a teenager, a woman and a geisha. He also had to create a storyline of a world long gone – that of 1930s Japan and that of pre and post WWII times. Lastly, he had to make these events clear for Western readers, most of whom are unfamiliar with the culture and the rituals involved in being a geisha. To do this, the story is presented to the reader as if a Japanese-English interpreter is writing down the memoirs told by this geisha, who now lives in New York and therefore understands how to tell the story to American people. He managed to overcome all obstacles and created what is one of my favourite books.
The book tells the story of fictional character Chiyo, a 9 year-old girl sold together with her sister, by their financially struggling father and ill mother. While the less good-looking sister is sold to a prostitution brothel, Chiyo gets sold to an okyia (geisha house) and becomes one of the most important geisha in Kyoto, in pre-war Japan. The narrative goes from Chiyo’s traineeship and initiation as a geisha who has now been re-named Sayuri as part of it, rivalry with another prominent geisha in town to her innocent fascination with a man we know as The Chairman and the support and training she gets from one of the renowned geishas in Kyoto, known as Mameha.
I’m not sure how Japanese people or geisha feel about this book, but from the eyes of the Western, Golden re-creates a vanished reality, meticulously details rituals and triggers emotions in a competing narrative that is so human and very simply, feels so real.
And the 2005 movie adaptation of the novel, by Rob Marshall? Just don’t. Apart from the beautiful costumes and the recreating of 1930s Kyoto, it is one of those hard to watch if you’re expecting to bring the image you’ve created to life. I don’t know if it was the English-speaking characters (sure, they put on an asian accent, whatever they meant by that) or the removal of what I thought was crucial information for the storyline, but I really did not enjoy it.
Author: Arthur Golden, 429 pages | Publisher: Vintage Books