Sunday, September 23, 2012

Book review: Memoirs of a geisha

“He was like a song I'd heard once in fragments but had been singing in my mind ever since.”

Having read such a romantically intense quote one would expect this book  to be a deep love story. The book is all but a love story. The highest honor and happiness the protagonist Nitta Sayuri receives is to be the mistress of a man she loved. To quote Sayuri "You cannot say to the sun, "More sun." Or to the rain, "Less rain." To a man, geisha can only be half a wife. We are the wives of nightfall. And yet, to learn kindness after so much unkindness, to understand that a little girl with more courage than she knew, would find her prayers were answered, can that not be called happiness? After all these are not the memoirs of an empress, nor of a queen. These are memoirs of another kind." These are memoirs of a geisha.

The 448 pages of emotional upheaval is a narration of her past life from the protagonist Nitta Sayuri. The mood of the book is not melancholy but hopeful. Readers are introduced to Sakamoto Chiyo in her impoverished childhood in a small fishing town of Japan. After her mother's deathbed, much to little Chiyo's shock, she as well as her sister is sold off to a stranger by her father. Little Chiyo's scary journey to become a Geisha thereafter hold's the reader's breath. A geisha is not a prostitute but an artist in her own way.The most literal translation of geisha into English would be "performing artist". While Japan's tradition expected women to be confined only to the walls of her kitchen, geisha were the women who accompanied men in social gatherings and entertained them with their dance, music and games. It was traditional in the past for established geisha to take a danna, or patron. A danna was typically a wealthy man, sometimes married, who had the means to support the very large expenses related to a geisha's traditional training and other costs. The geisha who worked within pleasure quarters were essentially imprisoned and strictly forbidden to sell sex in order to protect the business of the okiya (traditional geisha house).

Chiyo much desired for her loving face with the tender and piercing blue green eyes, missed her chance of getting art training to become a geisha when she bears the angst of mistress of okiya while fruitlessly trying to escape. On a chance meeting with a man she calls chairman throughout, young Chiyo's life is changed forever. She is awarded the generous apprenticeship with a magnanimous tutor Mameha and learns dance, singing and many other art forms as a Maiko (a geisha in training). Rechristened as Sayuri she is made to sell her virginity to the highest bid of 15000 yen. 

On her journey to becoming the most successful Geisha in the pleasure town of Gion, Sayuri earns a lot of friends and also a ruthless enemy Harsumomo. Every step she takes after that meeting with chairman is to get closer to him. But fate holds other plans for her. Chairman expects her to reserve her attention and care to Nobu, chairman's friend. The world war 2 pushes Japan into a fearful state and leaves Sayuri to sweat it out hard in a Kimono maker's home. After 2 years of gruesome work, Sayuri comes back home only to see her it having lost all the grandeur and to witness geisha culture severely challenged among American soldier troops. How Sayuri brings back the traditional standards of a geisha, how she keeps alive the geisha manners among lustful American soldiers and how she ever gets closer to chairman is best appreciated when one reads the book himself/herself.

Arthur Golden, the author has entwined the delicate controversial story of a geisha in powerful words. A reader is not disgusted when she reads that Sayuri's mizuage (virginity loss) is sold; instead one cannot help but pray that Sayuri gets the highest bid so that she can repay the amount to okiya for which she was sold and liberate herself to become independent geisha. The author compels you to shed tears when Sayuri finally gets her first kiss from chairman. Though the form of narration is prose I felt it is no lesser than a wonderful poem. Sayuri is pictured as a strong woman fighting against many odds; yet she is that delicate vulnerable girl whom anybody would love to protect. At once Sayuri looks like she is the unfortunate girl who deserves better, but the very next moment she is a happy soul to get the best out of her world. 

I wanted to put down the book after reading the first few pages but once the book got into my skin I felt pulled towards the characters. Though it is about a culture I was not aware of, people whom I could not relate to, hardships I never had or  will endure; I could still feel the pain of Sayuri's journey, the purity of Mameha's secret love to her patron,the intensity of Hatsumomo's genuine jealousy and the kindness of Chairman. 

“Perhaps it seems odd that a casual meeting on the street could have brought about such change. But sometimes life is like that isn't it” 

Yes Sayuri. Life is all that unpredictable yet promising. This character of Sayuri is one which will continue to remain in my heart for a long time. While there are many trivial things to complain about in life, women like Sayuri show to the world that an unflinching desire in heart is all that's required to get to the destination what come may. Kudos to the lion heart in a geisha body confined by many chains of oppression, social norms and restrictions. Hats off to the kindness, hope and faith life never fails to provide even after many blows. 

To treat yourself with beautiful quotes from the book:

1 comment:

  1. This is one of among the books that has touched my heart!"We are the wives of the night fall" this shows hw bravely Sayuri had understood and accepted the her fate.
    The interpretation done here is direct cut into the authors thoughts...arousing curiosity in the reader about the life of a Geisha! a must read book to every one who believes in Faith, Goodness, n Love.