There have been few books that I have read and re-read with every passing year and Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha consistently makes the list. As the world changes around me, so does my interpretation of the book each time I come across it – yet it remains a literary masterpiece, sliding back the doors to tea houses, their ceremonies and most importantly to the life of geisha.
‘Geisha’ directly translates as ‘prostitute’, though its more accurate translation would be ‘artist’. Golden’s masterpiece lies in presenting the term as a culture and way of life that is both invisible to the rest of the world and, in this case, the clients in Gion. Through his mouthpiece, the young Sayuri (named Chiyo at birth), Golden compels readers to follow her through the popular Japanese city in her wooden shoes and ghostly white make up. From a fishing village to her ultimate rise to fame, Sayuri learns as much of her new life as we do.
As entertainers, geisha must be trained in their art form – not only do they have intricate hairstyles, but they must learn to sleep on wooden bases rather than pillows to keep them intact. Geisha also attend schools, where instead of essays on eighteenth-century literature, they learn dance, the art of tea ceremony, various forms of singing and instruments such as the shamisen. They are trained by ‘older sisters’, or other successful geisha, who advise them on appropriate behaviour with the men they encounter in their lives. In this patriarchal era, these men included not only clients, but dressers for their complicated attire, directors of seasonal dances, and most importantly – danna. Though this term used to be used in Japan to refer to a ‘husband’, geisha use it to mean something different, as they do not marry. Instead, these are men who are not satisfied with merely parties or brief flirting, but look for something more intimate over a longer period of time. Danna invest in their lives by sponsoring dance recitals, paying for expensive kimono and all registration fees for any classes the artists attend. In short, they are the original ‘sugar daddies’ of Japan.
Sayuri’s story takes the reader through this lifestyle, expressed through Golden’s literary genius – at one point she jokes that the colour of her grey eyes are a result of the ink leaking out and it is this ink that Golden uses to write his book. His prose is almost musical to match the shamisen she plays for suitable clients, and with it, come cultural perceptions and superstitions. As such, the characters are presented as believing in elements rather than star signs, and someone described as having too much ‘water’ or ‘wood’ is expected to have a particular personality. With similar subtleties in their culture, he paints a vivid picture of how these women are not merely seductive dolls for clients and tourists to gawk at, but are individuals who strive to perfect their art and ultimately provide for themselves. As a result, Sayuri, though only 9 years old when she begins as an apprentice, is someone who is impressively poetic in her speech and carries strength to move forward in her young life.
I will not argue that geisha do not face misogyny or that their lives are fulfilled with their art – many of them are racked with debt and have no control over who becomes their danna. My love for this book stems from the way in which Arthur Golden intertwines these hardships with a sense of beauty. He pulls back the veil on this delicate topic and introduces aspects of these individuals that are hidden, almost as well as their bodies are hidden by their kimonos.