Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (1956, USA) is a book I have wanted to read for sometime now. It is a huge international best seller and has been translated into many languages. A movie based on it was also made. It is fictional story of the life of a young girl sold by her father, a poor fisher man, to the owner of a Geisha house in 1929 up to forty years latter. Her and her sister are both sold but not before it is verified, in a brutal scene, that both are virgins. This is a story about growing up in the "water world" of Japan, a place much written about and visited by the first practitioners of western style Japanese novels. One of the frequent or perhaps the most frequent question about Geishas is are they in effect prostitutes who also knew the intricacies of an elegant tea service. The basic answer of Memoirs of a Geisha is yes they are prostitutes in the vast majority of cases but they are something more also. If a man in the water world just wants to buy sex, there are plenty of venues open to him.
When an older Geisha is speaking with her 14 year old apprentice, her little sister, she tells her why do you really think the chairman of a giant corporation or a distinguished doctor would want to talk to you. In the world depicted in Memoirs of a Geisha, second and third level Geishas are pretty much willing to sell themselves on a onetime overnight or less basis at the end of a party. Higher class Geishas hold out to become the well supported mistress of a wealthy patron.
Golden spent years researching his novel and there really is a lot to be learned about the life of a Geisha and the business side of the occupation. I found it to be a really educational book in terms of the day to day lives of the Geishas.
One of the central events in the novel is the auctioning of the virginity of the central character at age fourteen. Nobody in this dramatic scene comes off looking good, least of all the wealthy men bidding to take her virginity. There is a controversy about whether or not this is based on Golden's misunderstanding of certain cultural rituals associated with a girl coming of age. The book was based on Golden's interviews with a Geisha and she claimed he misunderstood her and this sort of thing did not happen. I do not know the answer to this controversy but it does make you wonder why grown men in their fifties and beyond, captains of industry, cultivate the acquaintance of 14 year old girls if there is no sexual element in their interest.
In part Geishas existed because men, of course, want to have contact with attractive women and are subject to having their vanity played on, the stock and trade of the Geisha. They also wanted their own daughters, sisters etc to have no contact with men so a professional class of women arose to fill the void.
I thought the weakest part of the book was in the portrayal of the male characters, especially, "the Chairman" on whom the lead character has a life time fixation. The best part was the look at the day to day life of the Geisha and seeing how the economics of the water world worked.
I endorse this book to anyone interested in Geishas. Golden also does a very good job, maybe the best part of the book is here, in showing how WWII effect the lives of the people in the world of the Geisha.
Memoirs of a Geisha kept my attention most of the time though it was a little predictable. It is well written, if not great literature and it is very much worth reading for those into Japanese culture.
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