Geisha Of Gion” just whetted my appetite for more books on the geiko world. Luckily, I had this book to momentarily satisfy my craving.

Author:  Arthur Golden

First Published:  1997  (Hardcover)

Publisher:  Alfred A. Knopf Inc.


This Edition Published:  1999 ( Mass Paperback)

Publisher:  Vintage Books

No. Pages:  502

The Story :

In the poor village of Yoroida, a little girl with startling blue-gray eyes, is plucked from her parents and sold to an okiya, a geisha house, in Gion.  Chiyo’s eyes are a rarity in Japan, so her potential as a stunning geisha earns the greedy regard of Mother, the okiya’s proprietress and the spiteful jealousy of the house’s star geisha, Hatsumomo.  Together, they bear down on Chiyo’s confusion and homesickness which drive her to escape the okiya’s oppressive life.  Her attempt, however, fails with a fall from a roof  and a broken arm.  For this she becomes a disappointment and a bad investment and so doomed by the okiya to be an abused, overworked maid instead.

Chiyo pours out her misery one day, as life seems to stretch out bleakly before her.  A kind, well-dressed stranger, in the company of a geisha, spies her and gives her comfort with his handkerchief and a coin for a snowcone.  This innocent encounter marks a turning point in Chiyo’s life.  His kindness sparks a childish crush so that Chiyo begins to perceive a clear goal for life —  becoming a geisha, this being the only possible way she sees for someone of her station to meet him again.

As luck would have it,  another of Gion’s star geishas, Mameha,  seems enthralled by Chiyo’s eyes so that she negotiates with Mother to bring Chiyo under her tutelage.  With Mameha’s lessons,  Chiyo transforms into Sayuri and becomes the most sought- after maiko (apprentice geisha) and inevitably comes into contact with the kind stranger known as the Chairman.  Sayuri, by now has fallen in love with him.  However, the Chairman’s business partner, Nobu, becomes attracted to her instead.

What follows is a beautiful story of suppressed passion and love that spans time and circumstance.

The Review :

Few books have thoroughly captivated me as much as “Memoirs of A Geisha“.  The first few chapters hint at serving one with a sumptuous literary feast of exquisite prose, mesmerizing details of the exotic and secretive “flower and willow” world, and an uncommon emotional depth, all of which seem to flow so effortlessly from Golden’s pen.

Golden’s writing has a very lyrical quality to it and the book is rife with creatively crafted descriptions and charming little asides from the main character’s point of view.  It is quite astonishing how Arthur Golden,  being a man, could write so intimately and convincingly about a young  girl’s psyche.

The novel is full of analogies, metaphors, and descriptive phraseologies; yet, strangely, it isn’t burdened by them.  On the contrary, words flow so naturally and combine so beautifully to paint a lovely, poignant story that has touched the hearts of readers everywhere; hence, its international bestseller status.

Aside from a romantic, sensitively written story, one experiences the obsequious, community-dependent, perfection-driven, and heavily nuanced geisha culture whose exotically mysterious nature provides the book with a wonderfully different romantic flavor.


As An Aside :

Indeed, geisha depiction here is quite different from what Mineko Iwasaki (Japan’s foremost geisha in the 70’s) wanted to  project in her memoirs, Geisha of Gion“.   After she was thanked by Golden as his major source, Mineko was believed to be the real-life basis of Golden’s character, Sayuri; hence, the reported falling out between these two authors.

Golden renders the geisha more  as a courtesan, whose sole purpose is to entertain men — entertainment, here,  meaning one catering to all:  from the highest  artistic forms  down to more baser  pleasures.  Mineko Iwasaki, on the other hand, insists that real geishas are artists, trained in artistic customary perfection from a very young age, to carry on the tradition in Japanese entertainment.

Perhaps, both are right.  I’m surmising that there must be social hierarchies in the geisha community, with the existence of high-class and low-class geishas.  Mineko Iwasaki was perhaps telling her story from her viewpoint atop the community’s pinnacle while Golden was trying to tell his from the viewpoint of those at the base.

However it is,  Japanese culture has never been more interesting after these two books, and I hope to lay my hands on more on the same subject.

To Read Or Not To Read :

Memoirs of A Geisha” is certainly a must-read not just for lovers of romance, but also for those who want a well written story that informs as well as pleasures the reader with its intelligence, sensitivity, and femininely graceful style.

Conclusion :

This is a book worth keeping on your shelf to be re-read as a treat,  years after you’ve done with it.  Its tale is as timeless as enduring love.

My Mark :  Excellent

 

 


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This novel is Mineko Iwasaki’s memoirs of her life as one of Japan’s finest and most popular geisha of her time.

Author :  Mineko Iwasaki with Rande Brown

Publised:  2003

Publisher :  Pocket Books (Simon & Schuster UK, Ltd.)

ISBN: 0-7434-6900-3

No. of  pages :  334

Her Story :

Madam Oima, the proprietress of the Iwasaki okiya, a highly successful geisha house in Gion Kobu,  was happy to find her successor in the pretty, captivating face of five-year-old Mineko.  She petitioned little Mineko from her parents and thus started the career of one of the most foremost geishas in Japan.

At a very early age, Mineko Iwasaki was trained in Japanese dance, music and the arts  in preparation for an illustrous career as a geiko (geisha) and as an honored successor to Madam Oima.  As Japanese art is obsessed with perfection,  Mineko embraced this cultural virtue as her personal creed so that her beauty and relentless mastery of the arts brought great honor and fortune to the house of Iwasaki.

Although Mineko was always surrounded by beauty and privilege,  her life was a life of  self-imposed hard work to be the best — constant training, rigid self-discipline, and grueling schedules.

Mineko Iwasaki

In her memoirs, the author takes care to point out that real geishas are artists, exceptional in the art of traditional Japanese entertainment, which include the highly ritualistic tea ceremony,  traditional dance forms, and the art of conversation, to name a few.  Perceptions of geishas as stylized prostitutes are Western misconceptions which are rooted in the confusion between courtesans (an entirely different group) and geishas.  Being a geisha is to embody the Japanese art form–bringing Japanese artistic perfection to life.   So a geisha is an artistic entertainer par excellance, nothing more.

Mineko’s memoirs chronicles her years as a geisha until her shocking retirement from the business at age 29.

At present, the author is in her fifties and lives with her husband and daughter in Kyoto,  Japan.

The Review :

Through one geisha’s story, we get to take a good look at the mesmerizing and quite secretive “flower and willow” world.  This is a wonderfully descriptive account of the geiko community that upholds and celebrates the perfect feminine.  This is quite an eye-opener, actually, and casts huge doubts on the credibility of works that portray geishas as women of ill-repute.

Overall, it really isn’t a very compelling read but the author has many little stories that keep one’s  interest up — like the time when Prince Charles autographed her favorite fan, uninvited or when she decided to subtly flirt with the Duke of Edinburgh in full view of Queen Elizabeth II, as a little revenge for the Queen’s refusal to eat even a little of a meal which was meticulously planned for the royal visit (Mineko saw this as an unforgivable breach of etiquette).

As informative and interesting these accounts are, one is left with a feeling, though, that the author never allowed the reader to know her very well.  Perhaps, the author is a naturally private person; and also perhaps Ms. Iwasaki  does not possess the expressive skills of a writer.   Rande Brown, who is named as co-author must simply be a translator and not a real writer as well.  This is quite evident in the way the book is written—simple, sometimes bland and amateurish; but, its simplicity is what makes the book very readable and friendly to those who usually shun memoirs.

On The Side :

A little research into Mineko Iwasaki reveals that the author was the major inspiration for Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha“.  However,  she sued Mr. Golden for libel and defamation of character in 2001.  Mineko claims that Golden’s book twisted her accounts, betrayed her confidentiality and that his acknowledgement of her being his primary source, has earned her the contempt of the present geisha community.  It is Golden’s depiction of the geisha as a highly cultured prostitute that has earned Mineko a lot of flack, even to the point of receiving several death threats for violating the traditional code of silence.  The suit was settled out of court in 2003.

The New York Times and The Independent have better accounts of this dispute.    An interview granted to The Boston Phoenix talks about Mineko Iwasaki’s decision to publish her memoirs, her corrections on the common misconceptions of geishas,  and her early retirement.

In A Nutshell :

Geisha of Gion” has given me the impetus to select  “Memoirs of a Geisha” as my next read.   Despite having been disparaged by Ms. Iwasaki as an inaccurate depiction of geishas, it nevertheless must have been a result of research into geisha culture and interviews of other geisha.

From the pen of a genuine geisha, and not just any geisha but from the best there was, Geisha of Gion“, though, is the work to take seriously.  I consider myself privileged to have learned about this secretive world from someone who had lived in it and is actually in its roster of  legendary characters.

My Mark  :   Very  Good