Memoirs of A Geisha: A Book With An Impact
”Memoirs of a Geisha,” a male author from a different age and culture — specifically an American who received his academic training in the postwar years — has taken as his subject a Japanese woman born in the 1920’s and schooled in a rarefied, centuries-old tradition. As if that weren’t enough, he has decided to invent a voice for her, inviting readers to approach her world in the most intimate fashion — quite a daunting ventriloquist act to undertake in a first novel.
Chiyo and her older sister, Satsu, are the daughters of a fisherman from a little town on the Sea of Japan. During the depression years between the two world wars, the family falls on hard times and the girls are sold into slavery, taken to Kyoto to become, if they are lucky, artistically accomplished, highly paid teahouse entertainers. But pudgy Satsu is very unlucky, and she winds up as a prostitute in a low brothel, from which she escapes early in the book, never to appear again. On the other hand, Chiyo soon sheds her ugly-duckling status to achieve a swanlike beauty. Drawn by her bewitching eyes, men begin falling in love with her even before she takes her new name, Sayuri, symbolizing her metamorphosis into a professional geisha.
Chiyo is placed in an okiya, a boardinghouse for geisha run by a madam who buys the young girl as an investment. There Chiyo undergoes a grueling apprenticeship, surviving the scheming of the beautiful but spiteful Hatsumomo, the okiya’s star geisha, to become an even more luminous geisha herself. She also loses her virginity at the age of 15 to a man she calls Dr. Crab, who buys this privilege for a record price. After a few escapades in the company of some most undesirable patrons, she finally becomes the mistress of the man she had set her heart on all along, the benevolent chairman of an electrical supply company. Thus her story has a happy ending, and in this she is not especially typical — at least not outside the pages of romantic fiction. She winds up running a salon for visiting Japanese businessmen in New York and remains under the chairman’s patronage until his death.
Jakob Haarhuis, a fictional professor of Japanese at New York University, is wheeled forward in a prefatory ”translator’s note” to provide an explanation for the novel’s telling. Haarhuis, alias Golden, presents what he tells us are Sayuri’s taped memoirs, but the author thinks better of this device in an epilogue, where he admits, not entirely to our surprise, that ”although the character of Sayuri and her story are completely invented, the historical facts of a geisha’s day-to-day life in the 1930’s and 1940’s are not.”
Haarhuis’s foreword and Golden’s epilogue, the one appropriating the guise of a novel and the other taking it off, suggest an author who is of two minds when it comes to his work. It is not surprising, then, if his readers share this uncertainty. The decision to write an autobiographically styled novel rather than a nonfiction portrait is most obviously justified in terms of empathy, of allowing greater freedom to explore the geisha’s inner life. Unfortunately, Sayuri’s personality seems so familiar it is almost generic; she is not so much an individual as a faultless arrangement of feminine virtues. So meek and modest that she almost disappears before one’s very eyes, she is admirable but not terribly interesting.
It is entirely credible that a geisha might be just like this, at least on the surface. But what about the woman inside the sumptuous kimono, underneath the white mask? Surely if this story is to be the novel that Haarhuis suggests, a story worth telling in the first person, it should be one of appearances and illusions that are borne out or contradicted by the realities of Sayuri’s private world.
Ironically, in the secondary figure of Hatsumomo, Golden introduces a woman with the potential one looks for and finds wanting in the heroine he prefers, a figure with as many bad sides as Sayuri has good ones. If only her creator had been willing to develop this richer, more complex character, he might have been able to rouse the kind of empathy the novel needs — and perhaps one or two other qualities besides. Eroticism, for example.
But another way to approach ”Memoirs of a Geisha,” as Golden reminds us in his epilogue, is to appreciate its factual research, to consider documentation rather than imagination. And here the book is much more successful, filled as it is with colorful nuggets of information: A geisha will never go out for the evening until someone has sparked a flint on her back for good luck. She uses a face cream made from nightingale droppings. The time she spends with men, and thus her fee, is measured in incense sticks that burn for an hour apiece.
Many such details serve to enrich ”Memoirs of a Geisha,” giving Sayuri’s story a sharper focus and providing the distinctive qualities the heroine herself lacks. One can’t help concluding that if Golden had chosen to write the biography of a geisha rather than her fictional autobiography, he might have achieved a lot more by settling for hardly less.