What I’m Reading Now (Memoirs of a Geisha)

Another in the series and another that somehow escaped until now. What a shame that it did.

Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha offers an education in Japanese culture – or rather cultures. The work purports to be a factual account, told by Nitta Sayuri, a woman who has retired from her duties.

The story unfolds in a flashback beginning with the perspective of a nine-year-old Sayuri – bright and inquisitive, and beautiful despite smelling of fish. Her father traffics her and her sister as their mother is dying. Sayuri does not want to leave the “tipsy house” on the hillside in their tiny village. She grows more despondent when the trafficker separates the two girls. In the first fifty pages, Golden serves up a portrait of class differences, of a society locked in tradition, and of collective isolation.

The genius of this work comes through from the beginning. Golden achieves what few men do  in capturing the voice of a woman, and even more, the clear-eyed observations of a little girl.

The secondary characters appear by turns exquisite and gruesome. Sayuri marvels at a kimono worn by the pipe-smoking madam (called Mother) that was “yellow with willowy branches bearing lovely green and orange leaves; it was made of silk gauze as delicate as a spider’s web. Her obi was every bit as astonishing to me. It was a lovely gauzy texture too, but heavier-looking, in russet and brown with gold threads woven through.” When she disobeys and looks at Mother’s face, “… it was as though I’d been patting a cat’s body only to discover it had a bulldog’s head.”

More harrowing is skin on the shoulders and back of the woman called Granny, a retired geisha who used lead-based makeup, which reacted to chemicals in the water. Sayuri describes the flesh as “bumpy and yellow like an uncooked chicken’s.” So much for the image of the delicate flower of geisha-hood.

Even in the early pages, Golden has established the anguish and pain of Sayuri’s life.

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