Review: Memoirs of a Geisha

Memoirs of a Geisha
Memoirs of a Geisha
Arthur Golden
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, NY, 1997

Review Copyright © 1998 Garret Wilson — July 30, 1998, 5:00pm; August 1, 1998, 9:30am

The ending wasn’t so bad.

Having glanced around on (that’s where I discovered Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha to begin with), I read not a few responses from other readers that indicated the plot simply fell apart — or maybe faded away — in somewhere in the middle of the story. (Admittedly, reading reactions such as these tend to bias one before even starting to read a book, but seeing that I have a finite amount of time I must limit my perusals in some fashion.) In an interview with the author himself, he agreed that (if I remember correctly) the ending seemed somewhat an attempt to tie up the loose ends of a first novel. I, however, didn’t feel the letdown experienced by many of the other readers, and overall I found the work adequately consuming.

This is not to say that the author is another Charles Dickens, although in places he seems to be trying to emulate (or borrow from) the latter. The fact that the Chairman turns out to Sayuri’s "benefactor," as it were, does not contribute to the story in any sort of manner near the similar revelation in Great Expectations. (Granted, I’ve only read the Moby Illustrated Classics version in grade school). For one thing: who cares? It’s not as if the Chairman were a depraved criminal. The author sets us up to believe that Mameha was the sole contributor to Sayuri’s apprenticeship, but he fails to put any uncertainty in the picture, or any reason why one might think or wish otherwise.

What we are left with, then, is a very well-written, entertaining story without a climax. Perhaps that is this book’s notorious problem ending: there is a resolution with nothing to resolve. Resolutions aside, however, this book is a great story. Not only are there enough mini-plots to detract from the overall lack of meaning, there’s are plenty of mini-facts to keep you thinking long after you’ve put the book down.

One of the most interesting tidbits I picked up (if you assume that all the little tidbits in this story are carefully researched and true, as the "Acknowledgments" seem to indicate) is that geishas used to use nightingale droppings in their pasty-white makeup (62). And that certain types of makeup that were previously used contained certain minerals that poisoned the wearer. It’s also quite interesting to find that the setting in the book corresponds with World War II, which fits in with other books I’m reading.

The plot (or its deficiencies) leaves me with some unanswered questions. For example, why does Sayuri have such an obsession with the Chairman? Was it just the money and the handkerchief that made her suddenly realize that he was a good man, someone who represented everything that was right in the world? Is this just Golden’s way of trying to pique our interests in the Chairman so that the revelation towards the end of the story will somehow seem enormous?

Does Sayuri’s obsessions say something about her view of the world, and about her feelings for those in power? From the very beginning, Sayuri makes it clear that meeting Mr. Tanaka Ichiro was not only the worst thing but also the best thing to happen to her (7). Although throughout the story she somewhat hates Mr. Tanaka, she also has a sort of respect and even thankfulness toward him. Her profession is, in one sense, letting rich, powerful people take advantage of her. Does this somehow make her obsessive with those who have the power to alter her life completely for good or bad (e.g. Mr. Tanaka’s selling her into geisha-dom, and the Chairman’s renewing her intent to become a geisha)?

These questions become more mysterious at a certain event in Sayuri’s life in which Mameha is about to introduce her to one of the people who Mahema believes will in essence set her up for life:

As I walked along behind Mameha, I focused my attention not on Nobu [Mameha’s idea of her savior] but on a very elegant man seated behind him on the same tatami mat, wearing a pinstripe men’s kimono. From the moment I set eyes on this man I felt a strange stillness settling over me. He was talking with someone in another box, so that I could see only the back of his head. But he was so familiar to me that for a moment I could make no sense of what I saw. All I knew was that he was out of place there in the Exhibition Hall. Before I could even think why, I saw an image in my mind of him turning toward me on the streets of our little village... And then I realized: It was Mr. Tanaka! ... Why did I find it particularly soothing to look at him? Perhaps I was in a daze at seeing him and hardly knew how I really felt. Well, if I hated anyone in this world, I hated Mr. Tanaka... (195).

Sayuri goes through these love/hate feeling for a few moments until the man turns around and she realizes that he is not Mr. Tanaka, but rather the Chairman (196).

It is possible that Sayuri simply saw a familiar face in a very out-of-place setting, and while trying to resolve the familiarity she incorrectly put the wrong name with a face. Her feelings seem to betray something deeper, though. Seeing the Chairman brought back images of her childhood, of a man turning to her and altering her life in her native village.

Is it probable that the two people in who altered her life the most coincidentally resembled one another to the point of confusing the two? Did Sayuri mistake one for the other because they both altered her life so much? Or, most interestingly, did Sayuri obsess over the Chairman to the extent that she did because he in some way resembled Mr. Tanaka?

Sayuri had a terrible childhood and, in many ways, a terrible life. It is obvious that Mr. Tanaka in many ways made her life into what it was. If it were not for Mr. Tanaka, she probably would not have been a geisha. On the other hand, would she have even survived many years if not for his "help?"

Sayuri undoubtedly had very strong feelings for Mr. Tanaka that could never be erased. Sometimes hate and love become mixed up, and if the Chairman resembled Mr. Tanaka it’s possible that something down deep in Sayuri was repulsed yet drawn to him. Those love/hate feelings saw another hand reaching out to help her and reached out and grabbed for it, to the point of obsession.

Those aren’t the only possible answers, or even all the possible questions. But for Memoirs, they will do. This book probably won’t win many literary prizes, and I could think of better books to use for in-depth discussions. But Memoirs is nonetheless a worthy book to read. The plot could be better formed, the nuances could be more numerous. But an average story line coupled with above-average insight into Japanese geisha life early in the twentieth century make Memoirs of a Geisha a good book to read after you’ve finished the books in your "must-read" list.