‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ by Arthur Golden (1997)

Does it matter whether something is any good?

This is a question plenty of people must have asked themselves, and others since the birth of the printed word.  It doesn’t just apply to the printed word either (of course), it applies to all art.  However, here the concern is with the novel.  One novel in-particular, as after reading Memoirs of a Geisha, this is just the question that arose, or more specifically: ‘is it just Pretty Woman set in early 20th century Japan? And if it is, does it matter?’

One answer is ‘no’ and there is no paucity of other examples in a similar vein: one might never deign to sit and read a Mills and Boon novel, but will sit through a terrible television movie late one night when there is nothing else to do.  The same might be said of music, the secret joy when a catchy bridge draws your attention to the radio – most commonly known as the ‘guilty pleasure’.  So perhaps it should be posited first and foremost that quite aside from the whether or not it matters, is the fact that most people will have disengaged their mind and engrossed themselves in a bit of escapism from time to time and nobody should be too snobbish about that.

To, Memoirs of a Geisha though – it is a very popular novel that has been widely read and enjoyed by a great many people.  It has also been made into a feature film that, although criticised for its use of a Chinese lead actor rather than a Japanese actor, was nominated for numerous Oscars.  Using popularity as a measure of worth becomes questionable though, when we lift the veil of romanticism and find, firstly, the worrying theme of the enslavement and the exploitation of women.  The protagonist is sold into sexual slavery at the age of nine, from where she is groomed to become a geisha.  Unfortunately this is not particularly unusual – it did happen in Japan to numerous real girls – and continues to happen today all over the world and in raising this issue, the novel is raising an important social ill.  However, it is the suggestion that, at first what is a desire to better her material circumstances (again, a familiar story for all those with no other commodity than their bodies to sell) becomes over time, a lifestyle that the protagonist and narrator, Sayuri, comes to value and enjoy – and by extension the reader is encouraged to sanction – is simplistic and deeply insulting.  Are we meant to finally acknowledge that all women really want is to be looked after as mistresses and sexually dominated by men more powerful than us?

The main storyline, which takes up the majority of the novel, is about the relationship between Sayuri, at first a child and then a young woman and a much older man – identified not with a name, but only as ‘the Chairman’, reinforcing to the reader exactly who has the power in the relationship – who grooms her to become his mistress from the first time he meets her at the age of twelve.  This disturbing relationship is romanticised in the extreme, as Sayuri spends the larger part of the novel ‘in love’ with the Chairman and trying to engineer situations in which they can spend time together, in order to form some kind of relationship.  At the very end of the novel, the Chairman reveals to Sayuri how it was he who enabled her to become a geisha after their first encounter when she was a child, with the intention that he would eventually become her ‘danna’ (a man who pays to keep a geisha in order to be able to have sex with her) when she was old enough:

‘Perhaps you ought to look at yourself in the mirror sometime, Sayuri.  Particularly when your eyes are wet from crying, because they become … I can’t explain it. […] Sayuri, I am the one who asked Mameha to take you under her care.  I told her about a beautiful girl I’d met with startling grey eyes, and asked that she help you if she ever came upon you in Gion.  I said I would cover her expenses if necessary.  And she did come upon you only a few months later.’

This somewhat insalubrious situation is explained and excused by the use of fatalism as an all-explaining world view.  The reason, for example, that Sayuri can discard the man intended over the course of fourteen years for her ‘danna’ and who saved her from war-work, is that he simply is not her destiny and that all of the questionable behaviour of the Chairman can be excused morally because he is.

Alongside the issues of grooming and sanctioned prostitution is the rarely alluded to fact that the men in the novel who pay for the company of a geisha all have wives, to whom, presumably, a sexual identity is denied (perhaps because they are taken into marriage only because they will work hard in the home and bear male children).  So it follows that the novel allows only these two identities for women: wife, or whore.

A second worrying theme, considering the horrors America visited on Japan at the end of the Second World War, is that it is very pro-American, with only the slightest allusion to the terrible realities of nuclear war:

‘The war ended for us in August of 1945.  Most anyone who lived in Japan during this time will tell you that it was the very bleakest moment in a long night of darkness.’

The invading army, once the war is over, then – in the eyes of Sayuri – become a benevolent presence:

‘All the stories about invading American soldiers raping and killing us has turned out to be wrong; and in fact, we gradually came to realize that the Americans on the whole were remarkably kind.’

Perhaps, as with the treatment of women in the novel, this shouldn’t be too surprising when we learn that the author is an American male and the description of post-war America, which he puts into his protagonist’s mouth, is obviously a love letter to Western capitalism:

‘He’d [the Chairman] travelled there [America] the winter before and no experience of his life had ever made such an impression on him; he said he felt he understood for the first time the true meaning of prosperity … What amazed him most of all was that every family in the United States owned a refrigerator, which could be purchased with the wages earned by an average worker in only a month’s time.  In Japan, a worker needed fifteen months’ wages to buy such a thing.’

This isn’t a bad novel, just a familiarly Cinderella-esque, ‘bodice-ripper romance’, as one review called it and one that does nothing to further the cause of gender parity, seeming to suggest that the cultural differences between geisha and prostitute, Japan and America, make this acceptable under the veil of exoticism and Otherness.  Furthermore, quite aside from the politics, a lover of books must ultimately also address the idea that if you are going to take the time to read 428 pages, why not make it something nourishing, something that has the possibility of changing you for the better, or teaches you something about the complicated process of being a human being?  There is a place for ‘mind-candy’ and as mentioned earlier, everyone should acknowledge the times when most of us have indulged in this, even pursued it in one form or another, but ultimately I feel one has to argue that it does indeed matter, sometimes less than others, but in this case very much so.

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