People just love this book, don’t they? I guess I can understand some of that. There’s a good deal to appreciate in the literary side of the work. Golden has done a marvellous job of evoking the characters, and creating a setting that has tremendous verisimilitude for the reader. And yet, the book left me uncomfortable.
For those of you who don’t know, Memoirs of a Geisha is a work of fiction — a romance, really — which has been dressed in the kimono of an autobiography of sorts. Golden creates a fictional interviewer and translator at the beginning, and then offers us a work composed from ‘recorded interviews’ with his fictitious lead character, the geisha Sayuri.
The biographical material works very well, and Golden creates a wholly believable ‘voice’ for his Sayuri. The book is fully of interesting titbits and details, elements of the culture and the times, and particularly the location within Japan wherein the book is set. And yet, were it purely a biography I would find it very hard to believe, for it’s wrapped around what is really a very mundane, very conventional ‘love at first sight is finally requited’ tale with Sayuri at its centre.
On the other hand, viewed purely as a novel I found the book little to my liking. Biographies are interesting because they are biographies. From a novel, I hope for both more, and less. More in the sense that I’d like a more complex tale, stronger themes… I’d like to see more at stake than I do in a biography, generally speaking. And less in that I am willing to sacrifice minutiae of detail — the careful description of a colourful kimono; the precise arrangement of an apprentice geisha’s hair — in exchange for that strong and complex tale.
In fact, thinking careully, I find Golden’s book to be quite a lazy work. This might seem odd, considering the depth of research involved, the care he has taken over building Sayuri’s ‘biography’ — but a quick investigation of Golden’s background reveals him to be a scholar of Japanese history and art. I would never say that the evocation of the Gion district and the geisha lifestyle was an easy task — but I would say that for a man of Golden’s learning, it would be far easier than for most.
This book seems to me something that Golden has done to display his learning and study. There is in the West a lingering fascination with the geisha, and a lack of real information about them. Rather than writing an honest novel, or an equally honest historical study, Golden has chosen to pretend that his novel is history.
Now there are many fine historical romances out there, though relatively few take the form of autobiography. Am I meant, then, to be overwhelmed by Golden’s art in the creation of his narrator Sayuri? But why? There’s nothing easier for the novelist than to build a convincing character if that character spends the entire book talking about herself and her life.
Should I be delighted by the novel? I think not. As a little girl, Sayuri has a chance encounter with a powerful man who impresses her. For the next thirty years or so, she dreams of him, encountering him from time to time, eventually rising to the circles in which he moves — and finally becoming his mistress, despite the inevitable obstacles. And these obstacles: a spiteful, jealous senior geisha of the same household as Sayuri; World War II; the fact that the best friend and right-hand man of her desired lover is deeply enamoured of her, preventing the Desired One from acting… there’s nothing really very interesting in any of these. They unfold like a hand of cards, like — well, like the worn and well-signalled plot turnings of a rather generic romance.
I very much wanted to like this book. Instead, I find myself wishing it had been one thing, or the other, and wondering what it is that has so beguiled so very many readers.
There is one consequence which will follow from reading and reviewing this book, however. It seems that in researching his book, Golden did indeed interview and record a real geisha by the name of Mineko Iwasaki, and by some accounts used rather more of her material than he should. Certainly, she later brought a lawsuit against him for breach of confidentiality. But more importantly, she also produced her very own autobiography, Geisha of Gion — and I am now rather more interested in that book than I am in Golden’s piece.
It will be interesting to see the outcome. Is Arthur Golden really a talented novelist? Or is he merely a student of Japanese history and a very successful opportunist?