If any book can be described as beautiful and horrifying at the same time, it is Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. It is a story that spans many years and generations and is about Chiyo who is later known as Sayuri, a little girl who leads an extraordinary life. When her mother dies, Chiyo and her sister are sent away to Kyoto to train as geishas, and a woman known to them as “auntie” handles their education. The education consists of turning this innocent nine year old into a full-fledged geisha where at the age of fifteen her virginity will be auctioned off to the highest bidder. The book details Chiyo’s day to day life in the okiya (geisha training house) and the incredible hardships she had to endure as she lives with people who have no pity or compassion for her. She is beaten, starved and is robbed of any sort of childhood. In spite of the harsh subject matter the book details Chiyo’s life in an almost adventurous tone as she encounters jealous co-workers and uncouth patrons.
Of course, the first question that came to mind when I was reading this book was how does Arthur Golden, an American male, so perfectly capture the voice of a young Japanese girl? For he is pitch perfect in his descriptions of Chiyo’s disappointment at not being adopted by Mr Tanaka, her enchantment as she sees a geisha for the first time and her confusion as her virginity is taken from her by a middle aged man. We can clearly see her day-to-day rather mind numbing activities of cooking, cleaning and learning to play the shamisen. It is amazing to see how she survives this harsh life much less emerge as she does as a celebrated geisha. Golden’s subject matter of a geishas life in 1920’s Japan maybe a bit daunting for most readers but his narrative is so simple and beautiful that anyone can follow along.
For anyone who is not familiar with the harsh realities of a geisha’s life this book could come as a shock. The treatment Chiyo and her sister receive after they are taken to the okiya is handled in a matter of fact way by the author as he describes numerous beatings and verbal abuse. But the harsh subject matter brings a sort of authenticity to the pages. It is not just a story about a geisha told by an American author but the geisha herself is telling you about her life. The author is also quite matter of fact about how money and security is the ruling factor in a geisha’s life. Chiyo and Memeha, her geisha sister have a poignant conversation in the book about how they became geishas because they have no other choice and that point is driven home when Chiyo has to give up her dreams of love for the sake of security. When we see an image of a geisha on TV or a book we are mesmerized by her elegance and beauty but Golden’s book is about the reality of how they got there.