In at #62 Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden isn’t a book I was looking forward to. I’ve had a strong negative review from a friend doing the challenge and a mixed review from Alex in Leeds. I also remember reading it ten or fifteen years ago and feeling cheated. It wasn’t as bad as I’d thought it might be, but it’s not one I want to reread.
A girl with unusual eyes and a pretty face is born into a poor, unlucky family in Japan. Age nine she’s sold to a geisha-house in Kyoto, to be trained as a geisha. The novel tells the story of her life, from that day forward.
A big lie
There are a number of things which will make me stop reading a book, series or author, and fake biographies are high on my ‘hell no’ list. I’m happy with novels – I love novels, some of my best friends are novels – and lots of novels are first-person story-of-my-life deals. That’s fine. What I don’t like is being lied to and Memoirs starts with a big lie: the first chapter is titled ‘Translator’s Note’, and tells, very briefly, a story of a man half in love with a geisha, who has had the honour of sharing her story with the public.
As this is a novel, written in English by an American, there is no translator to this edition. The first time I read the book, I was about 16 and this just confused me. Now, it pisses me off: I know this is a novel, the author knows this is a novel. So what is this supposed to add, and at what cost? A less savvy reader, myself at 16 for example, may be confused by this note, or take it to mean that the story is true in ways it isn’t: that it was written by a woman, for example, or someone Japanese. They may – as I once did – ascribe more weight to the truth of the history than the book can actually support.
Moreover, Memoirs isn’t a very good memoir. Its focus is so tight that the novel unfolds as though the main character is experiencing it directly – although she entertains important men, generals, ministers and captains of industry, and has about fifty years of hindsight, her commentary on the wider situation in Japan and the world is frustratingly vapid. Most memoirs recognise that the audience won’t be familiar with the time and place, so while even pop stars will include helpful notes like ‘as Germany was bombing London we…’ or ‘it would be another five years before…’ Golden goes the other way, acting as though all his readers will immediately understand which bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, how long the effects of the Great Depression lasted in Japan, why Japan was interested in closer relations with Germany in the 1930s, what they were doing in Manchuria… it’s not all common knowledge, and even if it is, it’s nice to have it confirmed.
This leaves the story feeling rootless – as though it could be set in any era – and doesn’t help me trust the author. And when you’re writing about something which clearly isn’t your own experience, whether it’s history or SF, you need to earn the reader’s trust.
I think this is the crux of my problems with the book, on a meta level: I don’t trust Golden to be right, to be accurate, or to be telling a realistic story. And I have no way to check.
Not the story for me
On a textual level, the book didn’t grab me either. I found it hard to settle into it, for the reasons described, but also found the mix of levels of detail confusing. I suspect that Golden has done his best as there are detailed descriptions of many tangible artifacts like kimono, certain rooms in certain teahouses, jewellery and gifts – to the point where Alex in Leeds likens it to a clothes catalogue – which I suspect are things he’s actually seen, probably in museums or private collections. What’s missing is the sense of place – the things which are hard to get right if you weren’t there. The things which were unlikely but true, poor examples of time and place, like the fact it rarely snows in my part of Switzerland, and we never had a snow day.
The book is sensational and bland at once: the main character has a grand passion, an unwavering love from age 12 or so (which I find unlikely so it’s another strike against the novel in my book) which lasts at least twenty years. Everything she does revolves around this grand love, in a way which just seems so unnecessary. She’s trapped by this love almost as much as she is by the restrictive society she lives in and the slavery she’s been sold into.
Things which are unfamiliar and beautiful are intriguing – it’s one reason why geisha are interesting, both within Japan and abroad. But exotic is entirely a matter of perspective, as I’ve written about before, and to the geisha their lives should be normal. The book doesn’t manage to wear the culture comfortably, to my mind, and the story is perhaps too thin to carry the weight of showing off the culture that the author wants to do, and yet not thin enough to be invisible. I remember reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn at school. Set in a Russian gulag, it describes a good day, maybe a really good day, in the life of one of the inmates. Nothing much happens – the plot is so thin as to be invisible – and the focus is very tight, yet it highlights the brutality of the system in a way a memoir might not.
By choosing an extraordinary life, Golden has made Memoirs about the plot, not the setting, and by focusing on the setting, not the plot, he’s done both a disservice. It might have been a more satisfying book if he’d told the story of Pumpkin, an entirely ordinary geisha, but as it stands, the book isn’t one I’d recommend. If you want a good story set in Japan, read something else, I quite like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and if you want to find out about geisha, read non-fiction – perhaps Geisha of Gion, which is actually the memoirs of a geisha, or Geisha by Liz Dalby, an American who trained as a geisha.