Recommended Reads – Memoirs of a Geisha

“I had to wonder if men were so blinded by beauty that they would feel privileged to live their lives with an actual demon, so long as it was a beautiful demon.”

I have read several books, both fiction and non-fiction, about Japanese (and also Chinese) history. I find the ancient beliefs and traditions of these cultures fascinating. I can imagine that there may be some controversy around a Western author writing about Eastern culture, but as a Western reader who has read such books by authors from both sides of the globe I can say that Memoirs of a Geisha to me came across as well written and well researched.

There are two aspects to this story – firstly the fictional tale of Chiyo, who is sold to a geisha house in 1920’s Japan by her father after the death of her mother. She struggles to make her way in the world and laments the fact that should she ever manage to become a geisha, she will probably never find love.

“You cannot say to the sun, ‘More sun,’ or to the rain, ‘Less rain.’ To a man, geisha can only be half a wife. We are the wives of nightfall.”

The second aspect is the historical context surrounding Chiyo’s transformation into Sayuri – the gruelling training a young girl must go through to become a geisha, the many different traditions practised in Japan at that time, and the practicalities of what these young women had to go through to achieve a high status in their careers. The bidding war surrounding the sale of Sayuri’s virginity was a particular insight into the complexities of these old ways.

After the war, of course, everything changed, and it was interesting to read about the arrival of the Westerners, mainly Americans, and their immediate assumption that the geisha were prostitutes. Since then, it seems that some of these old ways in Japan have been forgotten about, while some still flourish, and all in all I found this book to be a good insight into the life of a geisha, with a bit of rivalry, heartache and romance woven throughout.

This story has really stayed with me, and I think the softness of the language, even that spoken in anger to Sayuri by the jealous Hatsumomo, helps to make this a stirring end emotional story, as Sayuri searches for fulfilment in a world of secrecy and strict tradition.

Note: This book inspired me to read Geisha of Gion, the true memoir of geisha Mineko Iwasaki. There was some controversy surrounding Arthur Golden interviewing Iwasaki and subsequently using her story as inspiration for his work of fiction, afer he had apparently agreed to keep their discussions confidential. Geisha of Gion is a fascinating read, and controversy aside, I think the two complement each other very well.

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