Monday, 28 November 2011

Courtesans in kimonos

Arthur Golden’s novel Memoirs of a Geisha (1999) was a New York Times bestseller for over two years. While I bought the book at the time, there was such hype surrounding it that I chose not to read it until many years later when I grabbed it off my shelf. Geisha’s popularity is immediately apparent: a rags to riches tale set in an exotic locale, steeped in mystery of an ancient Japanese custom.

Told in the first person, the story is narrated by Sayuri, a retired geisha reflecting on her life. Born in a poor fishing village, Chiyo (as Sayuri was known as a child) and her sister Satsu are sold to an okiya, a boarding house for geisha. The girls are separated and Chiyo is sent to an okiya run by a trio of unpleasant women: Granny, Mother and Auntie. It also houses the cruel Hatsumomo, a popular geisha who brings funds into the okiya. 

Despite continually plotting her escape, Chiyo trains to be a geishas alongside Pumpkin. Later Chiyo is taken in as a protégé to another geisha named Mameha. Over many years she struggles to learn the art of being a geisha, has her virginity auctioned off to the highest bidder, and tries to find love with a man known as the Chairman.

Golden creates a fascinating world of ritual, art and culture that I found absolutely engrossing. I understand he interviewed real geisha to inform the novel. I don’t know or care whether it is factually accurate, because it was an engrossing and entertaining book from start to finish.

In Sayuri Golden has an interesting protagonist who experiences such broad emotions, from grief to jealousy, love to bitterness, and the reader follows her journey desperate to know her fate. I also loved the delicious bitchiness of Hatsumomo. The Chairman was the only character I felt was a little two-dimensional and in need of more depth.

In 2005 a film was made of Memoirs of a Geisha starring Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li, Michlle Yeoh, and Ken Watanabe. Filled with beautiful costumes and stunning cinematography, the incredible cast (particularly Gong Li) makes this an enjoyable film. Despite its visually stunning appearance, the film is unable to bring out the richness of Golden’s story and as such I would recommend the book over the film.