Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Memoirs Of A Geisha - Arthur Golden

Memoirs of A Geisha
Arthur Golden
Vintage Canada
Copyright Date: 1997

The amazon.com description is:
In this literary tour de force, novelist Arthur Golden enters a remote and shimmeringly exotic world. For the protagonist of this peerlessly observant first novel is Sayuri, one of Japan's most celebrated geisha, a woman who is both performer and courtesan, slave and goddess.

We follow Sayuri from her childhood in an impoverished fishing village, where in 1929, she is sold to a representative of a geisha house, who is drawn by the child's unusual blue-grey eyes. From there she is taken to Gion, the pleasure district of Kyoto. She is nine years old. In the years that follow, as she works to pay back the price of her purchase, Sayuri will be schooled in music and dance, learn to apply the geisha's elaborate makeup, wear elaborate kimono, and care for a coiffure so fragile that it requires a special pillow. She will also acquire a magnanimous tutor and a venomous rival. Surviving the intrigues of her trade and the upheavals of war, the resourceful Sayuri is a romantic heroine on the order of Jane Eyre and Scarlett O'Hara. And Memoirs of a Geisha is a triumphant work - suspenseful, and utterly persuasive.

Told from Sayuri's perspective as she looks back on a long life as a geisha, Arthur Golden has written an engaging, detailed book from which I found that I could see the scenes he described. His descriptions are vivid, and the characters real (if not always likable). He has even included the fiction of a translator's note at the beginning of the book, adding another layer of verisimilitude to the picture Memoirs of a Geisha forms of Japanese life.

This isn't my typical book reading choice, but I was looking for a change of pace from fantasy and ancient history. I'm glad I did get it. Were I inclined to rate books here, this would be a definite five star novel!

Although I found the first two chapters slow going, I quickly got into this book and found that I couldn't put it down, ending up reading until far to late at night for the last three nights. I had to know how Sayuri was going to deal with the characters around her: Pumpkin, Auntie, Mother and Hatsumomo, not to mention the various clients she had.

I know very little about Japanese culture so I have no idea of how accurate the book is and how much has been romanticized for fiction. Honestly, I'm still trying to figure out if Sayuri had a happy ending or not. She certainly had an eventful life, with the Second World War smack in the middle of it.

According to the author's note at the end of the book, Arthur Golden did quite a bit of research before and during the writing of Memoirs Of A Geisha, including a number of interviews with a geisha.

That's another thing Memoirs Of A Geisha did. It made me think of the Second World War from the Japanese perspective. I'm used to reading and thinking about the European portions of the War, but less so about the Japanese/Pacific aspect.

At times while I was reading, I got the impression of Sayuri's way of life being a dying one. As I said though, with no knowledge of Japanese culture, I have no idea if this impression is the correct one. It was certainly an interesting life she led, and by the end of the book, I rather got the feeling that had I gone to New York, and looked around, I would have seen her on the streets just as she described herself, even though the book is fiction. That's how real the author managed to make her.

I'm curious. I know that Memoirs Of A Geisha has been made into a movie, but I haven't seen it. How does it compare with the book?


Shanra said...

*pokes reader* I don't know why this one didn't show up... Anyway, while I know a little about Japanese culture, I don't know enough to tell you how accurate it is. (I do know that if you're interested in the lives of geisha, you might consider checking out Geisha: A Life by Mineko Iwasaki or Geisha by Liza Dalby, both of which are autobiographies, but very different. Mind you I haven't got around to reading either.)

As for the movie-book comparison. Personally, I think the movie is mainly eyecandy. I read the book too long ago for effective comparisons, but they cut out a fairly large portion, if I remember it right, and you lose all the explanations of Japanese culture and language that Golden provides. I don't think it's a bad movie on its own, but I'd definitely recommend the book over the movie. It allows far more depth.

Elena said...

I've had a few recommendations for the Iwasaki book, and the local library has it. It's on my "borrow" list, but at the moment I'm reading three other books.

That seems to be fairly typical of movies based on books, so I'm not too surprised. I'll probably still search it out though. The costumes are bound to be spectacular.

Chiropractor in Dallas Tx said...

I really liked this book. It gave such a clear picture of the life of a Geisha and the changes during and after the war. It really showed how crude some of the US soldiers could be compared with the refined life of the upper-class Japanese the Geishas were usually exposed to.

Elena said...

I agree. That's one of the amazing things about Memoirs of a Geisha, the pictures the author is able to paint with words.

It was quite the contrast reading too - on the other hand, it's been a few years now since I read Memoirs of a Geisha, so a lot of the details have become somewhat fuzzy in my memory.

Thanks for commenting.


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