Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Arthur Golden: Memoirs of a Geisha

First thing to praise about this book, and the first thing that is truly striking about it, is the sheer depth of research that Golden partook in order to write this novel. The level of detail is staggering and totally immerses the reader in the world of the Geisha; the slightest details such as Sayuri’s make-up and hairstyle are described with such assuredness and skill.

A Geisha is an artist with expertise in music and dance, they would attend parties thrown by businessmen and pour drinks and generally entertain them. The closest Western equivalent would be Escorts, but they were not prostitutes. They are, fundamentally, a symbol of the old world in Imperial Japan. For the men, they were ostentatious displays of wealth.

The novel is written in the bildungsroman narrative structure, which follows the protagonist throughout their early life and development. Jayne Eyre being a classic example. Memoirs of a Geisha is another classic example as she starts of in poverty and ends in wealth. It is in the first person narrative and addresses the reader personally (“I am sure you understand” etc). This can lend a certain degree of informality to the narrative voice, which at all times is strong and engaging. There is no “and dear reader, I married him” style moments which is a, frankly, a relief. However, this form of narrative can only ever be from a singular perspective so does lack the depth of characterisation that using the third person narrative can sometimes deliver. This is over come by having a strong and interesting central protagonist.

One of the themes of the novel is the clash between the old and the new worlds. This is shown most brutally during the course of World War 2 – steel American bombers destroying towns made of wood. With this, there is the death of the old, traditional ways of doing things. The Geisha are shown as reluctant and resistant to change. Change is literally dropped on them at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. One gets the feeling that change, and the effects of the Great Depression, are happening to others in Japan and not the Geisha. This is a point that Golden makes frequently, the Geisha are closeted ornaments of men. The entire life is geared towards entertaining and pleasing them. They are taught traditional dances and instruments. Always with one goal in mind, to secure a wealthy “Danna” – that is to become a rich man’s mistress.

Another of the major themes is water. The sea and rivers are depicted in various ways, when she is a child it is depicted as violent, slate grey and restrictive. This symbolises how people in her small fishing village are trapped by this fundamental link to the natural world. This link is best shown through her father who is a fisherman. Her first idealised male is Mr Tanaka, who works for a fishing company and becomes her way out of poverty. Another recurring motif regarding water is that Sayuri’s personality is mainly made from the water element. This element means that she is adaptable and artistic – factors that help her in her life as a Geisha. During her time away from Gion during the War, she says that her personality turned to ice. This is symbolic of not only her own, but her nations struggle for survival. She has to become cold and hard in order to survive, it is only when she has the chance of return does she start to melt. Water is also embroidered on the Kimono that they wear and the jewels that adorn their hair. This is a visual link between nature and the women’s sexuality.

Another interesting theme to note is the relationships the Geisha, with Sayuri in particular, and the women in the novel have with the men. The men, her father aside, all have vested interests in the women. If the men in the novel are not making money from them – such as the dresser, the wig maker and the artist then they are professional men who are entertained by them or desire them for sexual gratification. The only non-professional man in the novel is Sayuri’s father. The men she entertains are either shown as idealised demi-God’s such as the Chairman, Mr Tanaka and to a lesser extent Nobu or as one-dimensional drunks and sexual predators, such as Dr Crab (who wins the bidding war for her mizuage, or virginity), the Baron, and the Minister of Finance. This is one criticism that one could level at the book; the men are sparsely drawn and at rather secondary. However, it can easily be argued that this is because the female narrative voice is surrounded by women so how would she know men to any real depth.
The women’s ambition, as previously mentioned, is to get a rich Danna. This role would give the men soul sexual access to the Geisha however, he would be expected to pay her Okiya and all her expenses. Throughout the novel Sayuri idealises the Chairman – the head of a powerful and successful electrics company – and he becomes her rason d’ĂȘtre. Everything action she takes through the majority of the book are geared towards having the Chairman as her Danna. One does ask would a woman really be obsessed with the same man for nearly twenty or so years. This does lead to one of the most disappointing aspects of the book, and that is the final two or three chapters. They are unsatisfying in the broader context of the book. If one thinks of “Great Expectations” by Dickens then this would explain why. These lead to a sense of anti-climax and a sense of Golden not so much rushing but desperately trying to tie up the loose ends. Maybe the ending is meant to in

However, this is still an engrossing and at times beautifully written book, some of the phrases are pure poetry. The pacing of the novel never really drags and that is some achievement for a work of fiction that runs to 420 odd pages. Any complaints about this book and the bildungsroman narrative structure are really rather secondary to a very good book.

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