Saturday, February 16, 2008
Memoirs of a Geisha (New York: Vintage, 1997), the first-born novel by Arthur Golden, recounts the story of Nitta Sayuri's very secret world in which she lived the strange life of a Japanese geisha during the 1930’s until the early part of 1950’s in urbane Kyoto, a universe away simplicity-wise from her fishing family’s rural origin, Yoroido.
The protagonist Chiyo is a simple girl from a poor family in the Japanese countryside. In order to improve her family’s mode of living, she goes to Kyoto where she turns into a geisha named Sayuri. This proves what extreme sacrifice a person is willing to render, even becoming a prostitute, all for the sake of supporting one’s family. As a geisha, she gets verbally and physically tortured by her fellow geishas but eventually fights back to show that under brutalizing times, a person as innocent as Chiyo can transform from a victim to a fighter. She realizes that she can use an inherent power—her body—to her advantage when her virginity is sold off to a customer and later develops into a renowned geisha.
Memoirs of a Geisha is a story of a strikingly pretty, unusually gray-eyed child of a low-class fishing family in Yoroido. At a tender age of nine, Chiyo's mother died, leaving her and her sister to the sole custody of his very old father. It was at this lugubrious point of Chiyo's life when she met Mr. Tanaka Ichiro. She thought, even hoped, that Tanaka is her family’s savior—that he would be able to redeem them from their impoverished lives. However, she was totally wrong. As she herself admitted, "But the truth is that the afternoon when I met Mr. Tanaka Ichiro really was the best and the worst of my life. He seemed so fascinating to me, even the fish smell on his hands was a kind of perfume. If I had never known him, I'm sure I would not have become a geisha." So, Chiyo and her sister were sent to faraway Kyoto and sold into slavery to a renowned geisha house where Chiyo was renamed Sayuri. This was the most painful part of her life, as she struggled to survive the new life she was into. She fervently yearned to go back to her father and be reunited with her sister, but she could not do anything. She was censured and physically abused by some of her fellow geishas, particularly her rival, Hatsumomo. Perhaps, those geishas in the geisha house were not originally cruel but the harsh, decadent events in their lives probably turned them into cruel, tough creatures. Whether the geishas were naturally or developmentally brutish, Sayuri must learn to swim the tides of the geisha ocean or she would sink. Consequently, she boldly cultivated a new image with the help of Mameha, a renowned geisha. She succeeded in becoming a famous geisha through Mameha's guidance. Mameha had skillfully arranged the two main events important to Sayuri's life as a geisha: the auctioning of her virginity and the finding of a danna or sugar daddy.
The theme seemed to be revolving around Machiavelli's principle "The end justifies the means," and Tanaka first practiced this. He was not motivated by money to sell Chiyo and her sister to slavery, but in his own way, he did care for their future. Though his means was bad, Tanaka knew that the end would be good for the sisters. Geishas, in order to survive, must sell off their bodies to men. The means may not be morally right for the society at-large but for them, the end did something good for their sake as their trade provided for them economically. Also, the novel depicts predatory man's exploitative craving for power, money, and sex at the woman’s expense. Men try to assert their machismo by merely objectifying and commodifying women instead of treating them as human beings. The oppressive patriarchal society of Sayuri and her fellow merchandises makes the women savage one another.
I never thought that the term geisha would be synonymous to the word "prostitute." Before I read the book, I have no idea what this novel was all about, although the title gave me a clue that it would be something about Japan or its culture. I was partly right. After reading the whole novel, I was shocked to know that this novel was all about the life of a prostitute. It is said that the term "geisha" does not necessarily mean "prostitute;" rather, it means "artisan" or "artist." Whatever it means, it boils down to one concept—"prostitute". The art of entertaining men and of selling off one's virginity to the highest bidder is the work of a prostitute or someone involved in prostitution. What shocked me though was that early in those times, prostitution was already prevailing. Though subtle in form, it does exist in those times, even how prostitutes were trained and how their virginity was auctioned both of which were ambivalently interesting and shocking.
Arthur Golden, an American who majored in Oriental studies, was very successful in writing the novel in the voice of a Japanese woman. While I was reading the novel, I genuinely felt the voice of a woman. And the first person point of view was used and maintained consistently throughout the novel.
I still wonder though what could be the motive of Nitta Sayuri on her reason for wanting to recount her life as a geisha, although I suspect that it has to do with having a story to tell, so whatever lessons in her life that others may learn, she becomes instrumental in their shaping of destiny, be them prostitutes or non-prostitutes. This novel is an eye-opener about the prostitution in Japan during those times. The oldest profession was and still is one of the world's prevailing problems that seemed too difficult to resolve, but whoever thought one cannot find pearls amid murky geisha waters?