Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden

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Since the release of the movie many years ago now, I’d heard nothing but great things about Memoirs of a Geisha, and I had been eager to read it for some time. For several reasons, I was extremely disappointed; many of them are personal tastes, but others revolve around the technical workings of the novel. I don’t give single stars regularly, and even though on goodreads that generally means I didn’t like it, I don’t finish books which don’t at least engage me in some way.

Upon beginning the novel, Golden has chosen to include a fake translator’s note, which to be fair, is written well enough to have had me question whether or not I was about to read an autobiography and not a piece of fiction. The only reason I can fathom Mr Golden decided to include this letter, was to push an impression of Sayuri onto his readership before allowing her to speak for herself. Perhaps this would have worked if the first-person viewpoint of Chiyo/Sayuri had coincided with it, and perhaps it did for some readers, but I wasn’t overly convinced by Sayuri as a character. For this reason, the translator’s note felt more like a cheap tactic to trick me into caring about her.

The story centres around protagonist Chiyo on her raise to becoming the geisha Sayuri during the 1930’s. However, her tale is presented, judging only by the writing, by someone who is neither Japanese, nor a woman. It’s ambitious to write an autobiographically constructed novel, a clever format for introducing empathy, but Mr Golden hasn’t handled his subject matter very well. Sayuri’s personality seems to spring from an educated western understanding of what a geisha is. She’s not so much a person, as the combination of unblemished feminine virtues, sustaining a modest and, yet, artistic way to present herself and her surroundings, and it’s not terribly interesting, and towards the end, actually fairly irritating. Was this a means of showing how deeply a geisha’s training runs? If so, the effect was quashed by the aforementioned translator’s note, which told me to expect a strong presence; in fact, Sayuri had a very weak presence indeed. Her feelings about sex and her sudden infatuation with a kind man, also appear to be far-fetched ideas of what a man believes a woman might feel. Very little of what Sayuri felt, actually felt like what a real geisha would. Add to all this everyone’s agreement of her unquestioned beauty, and we’re stepping into the realms of the absurd. Other characters also present themselves as caricatures. Dr Crab for example, whose only function was to make the reader feel pity for Sayuri, was just laughable with his collection of virgin’s blood, and didn’t inspire the fear I’m sure Mr Golden actually meant to exact. And the Chairman, who I’m sure in fact was supposed to be some representation of hope, became a pointless love-obsession, with no other trait than kindness.

The pace of the novel is unbearably slow. What’s most baffling about this, is in areas where it could have been interesting to include more detail, were the times when large time lapses took place, such as during Sayuri’s time outside of Gion during the war. It seemed to me the final chapter wasn’t needed either, taking a heres-what-happened-to-everyone approach to the ending, rather than a tidy one. Upon the meeting of a previously introduced character, long paragraphs are taken to explain, once again, who they are. Furthermore, Mr Golden describes every single kimono, down to the colour of its seam; certainly warranted on the more important occasions, but it proved pace-stopping most of the time. Paragraphs are six or seven sentences longer than they need to be; half the book could have been cut, and nothing of importance would have been lost. Mr Golden utilities long, often unnecessary, similes and metaphors further dragging them out by following up with explanations as to how they relate. In one two-spread page, I counted seven of these, no more than just a paragraph apart. By doing this, Mr Golden has reduced the effect of the more powerful images, such as the pooling of kimono around a geisha’s feet, with dull, ineffective comparisons with people being like kettles. There were even instances where his metaphors made no sense.

I’m being a tad harsh, I know. The novel isn’t all bad, I promise. Warranted most of the above is based on my personal taste of character and writing style, and the book has a saving grace in the form of its cultural milieu. Mr Golden has obviously spent a considerable amount of time researching his material down to what the mats are made of. The book is chock full of interesting tidbits about Japanese civilization during that time, which he weaves into the plot to keep the environment strong in the mind. However, for me personally, even this wasn’t flawless, because he includes these icons of knowledge much like they would be presented in an encyclopedia, failing to integrate them fully with the actions of the protagonist.

My opinions towards Mr Golden’s work seem to be part of a small minority. Praise of the magnitude this book has received, from so many people, doesn’t come from nowhere. Therefore, I can conclude that the contents just didn’t contour very well to my own personal tastes. Certainly, a read of this work shouldn’t be passed-up, the original subject matter is a rare insight into another world, however poorly I felt it was handled.

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