Thursday, 27 September 2012

Memoirs of a Geisha



How will anyone believe that a top Geisha of Gion was actually a peasant girl who lived in a hut in a fishing village of Yoroido?

One man reacted:
"You, growing up in a dump like Yoroido. That's like making tea in a bucket!... Sometimes you almost make me believe your little jokes are real."
But the joke is real. Chiyo was not anywhere near being a geisha at the start of her life (and at the start of the novel). Unlike the fantansies of men, Chiyo is not a daughter of a geisha, and certainly not raised to become a geisha.

This is how the novel began--readers are made curious how the protagonist, Chiyo, a nine-year-old girl, become a well-recognized geisha in Gion, under the name Sayuri.

Reading the novel is like having an afternoon tea with an old woman who reminisces on her life. The narration is intimate, though the tone can be formal. The choice of words are consistent that from a refined lady, and she frequently slips, giving clues about the end of a situation or a character. For other novels, revelations in the middle of a story can weaken the climax causing the story to lose surprise and tension. But in Memoirs of a Geisha, this style makes the story even more intriguing, hooking readers into wondering-- how will this girl who wears peasant clothing become the kind of woman who can distinguish between a fine kimono and an ordinary one?


The first turn in Chiyo's destiny happened when her mother fell ill, and because of poverty, her father was forced to sell her and sister Satsu to a wealthy man. The sisters thought they were being adopted, but only later when Chiyo was dropped off in a geisha household (an okiya) did the sisters realized they were being separated. On her first few days in the okiya, Chiyo was filled with loneliness and fear that she could not believe what she felt one day:
"I was without my father, without my mother--without even the clothing I'd always worn. Yet somehow the thing that startled me most... was that I had in fact survived. I remember one moment drying rice bowls in the kitchen, when all at once I felt so disoriented I had to stop what I was doing to stare for a long while at my hands... this person drying bowls was actually me."
To worsen Chiyo's loneliness, she is abused and manipulated by the geisha in the okiya (and the antagonist in the novel), Hatsumomo. Under cruelty and loneliness, Chiyo has all the reasons to give up; her dream to become a geisha seems to be elusive.

The novel's beginning is slow, but the compounding problems in Chiyo's life, and her honest expression of suffering makes her more relatable and easy to sympathize with.


Then one afternoon, a man showed  kindness to Chiyo. She has not felt kindnes since her separation from her family; its rarity struck her.  But all of a sudden, everything turned brighter and more hopeful for her.This became the second turn in Chiyo's life.

The novel tells a coming-of-age story on how Chiyo transforms into a geisha that later she described:
"I've heard it said that the week in which a young girl prepares for her debut as an apprentice geisha is like when a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. It's a charming idea; but for the life of me I can't imagine why anyone ever thought up such a thing. A caterpillar has only to spin its cocoon and doze off for a while; whereas in my case, I'm sure I never had a more exhausting week."
The characters, places and even kimonos become so alive through Chiyo's metaphoric and detailed narration. Chiyo can be so generous in praising a character's beauty like, surprisingly, Hatsumomo. She can also be so blunt like how she described the mother of the okiya as having yellow eyes that Chiyo compared to a urine-stained toilet. Chiyo's narration only emphasizes that in the world of geishas, beauty is the prime.

But behind a geisha's beauty is hard work. Chiyo trained from a very young age about art, music, dances and tea ceremonies. However, mastery of art does not guarantee to turn a woman into a clever geisha. To be truly successful, Chiyo needed to rival against other geishas, like Hatsumomo. And to catch and keep men's attention, she also needed to learn how to entertain and please them. Luckily for Chiyo, she has Mameha, the top geisha of Gion, as her mentor.

In one part, Mameha shows Chiyo how to "send message" with a flick of her eyes:
"Mameha went around the corner again, and this time came back with her eyes to the ground, walking in a particularly dreamy manner. Then as she neared me her eyes rose to meet mine for just an instant, and very quickly looked away. I must say, I felt an electric jolt; if I'd been a man, I would have thought she'd given herself over very briefly to strong feelings she was struggling to hide."
Mameha further taught Chiyo about the weaknesses of men for women, like the mizuage (virginity), sex and sensuality. On those parts, the novel takes a sexist attitude against men. In some other parts, readers are teased, sometimes appalled, with fetishes.

When Chiyo made her debut as a geisha, her name is changed to Sayuri. With close guidance from Mameha, Sayuri became a good rival in the world of geishas. She has become skilled, not only in the arts but also in flirting, and most especially, she's aware of men's weaknesses and intentions.

Sayuri inevitably attracted a lot of men and formed different kinds of relationships with them; she was a friend, an inspiration, a mistress, a forbidden love, and an unrequited love. Men pay for her company. They engage in a bidding war for her mizuage. Her danna (husband) provides for all her needs just to make her his mistress. With all those attentions and connections with influential men, Sayuri rose from being a servant to one of the top geishas in Gion.

But to label Sayuri as a prostitute is to disregard her life, talents, and efforts. In Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden created characters with complexity and depth; readers are left with feelings of admiration, love, pity, or hatred for the main characters. It is heartbreaking to think that Sayuri, Mameha, and some other characters, are only fictional. It is no wonder why many readers felt affected when the novel got caught in a controversy back in 2001. Readers need to be reminded that Memoirs of a Geisha, though based on real Japanese culture, is first and foremost, a work of fiction. It has its share of comedy, drama, and fairy tale.


"You have a great deal of water in your personality... It changes shape and flows around things, and finds the secret paths no one else has thought about...There's no doubt it's the most versatile of the five elements... And yet you haven't drawn on those strengths in living your life, have you?"

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