“In my reviews, I feel it’s good to make it clear that I”m not proposing objective truth, but subjective reactions; a review should reflect the immediate experience.” — Roger Ebert
Or in my case, what I remember of my immediate experience. Reading is as much about reactions to the material as it is about absorbing and taking it in. It’s one of my favorite things about the way history and literature interact (and why I wrote about it so much for both literature and history classes in college). What we read can change the way we think about ourselves, others, and the world we inhabit. What we think affects how we act and how we act can change the way the world and the people we interact with are. Which then inspires people to write new things for the rest of us to read and the cycle begins again.
By reading books from different periods of history, from different regions of the world, books that have become part of the literary canon (or have been removed from the literary canon) — like many of the books on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list — we get a glimpse into how people thought and acted at different points in the past. Sometimes the impact a book has cannot be clearly seen until after the dust settles; then we see whether the world has changed or whether everything remains the same.
Every culture has its traditions and rituals, few running as deeply as those involving the geisha in Japanese culture. Arthur Golden’s novel, Memoirs of a Geisha works to dispel many of the misconceptions held by his primarily Western audience. Golden goes beyond simply clarifying exactly what a geisha does and manages to gradually familiarize the readers with the vocabulary and the customs, making the immersion into the world he creates a relaxed and comfortable one. That level of comfort helps to enhance the story and its characters.
Sayuri, one of the most famous and in-demand geisha from the Gion section of Kyoto, recants the story of her life with the largest portion of it falling in the years from nine to eighteen as she underwent the extensive transformation from the youngest daughter of a poor rural fisherman to one of the most successful geisha of her time. Her fellow geishas and the men they entertain form a colorful and cunning supporting cast. Chiyo, as Sayuri was known before the selection of her geisha name, learns quickly that none of them can be underestimated and the reader learns not to underestimate Sayuri either.
Sayuri’s difficult rise to prominence in Gion is set against the deteriorating conditions of Japan as the years leading up to World War II take their toll on the country and slowly begin to creep into the seemingly separate world occupied by the famous geisha districts. Reference is made to the increasingly bleak conditions faced by the average Japanese citizen as the war approaches, but the reader, like Sayuri, spends most of the time in Gion where the illusion of stability holds out the longest.
The voice of the History Major in my head piped up every once in a while to lament that more time wasn’t spent elaborating on what was happening to cause those changes and that after such a drawn out telling of Sayuri’s teen years as she fought to become a geisha, the five years of the war passed in little more than one chapter. But that voice was quickly silenced by another, one which appreciates the aesthetics that such brevity creates. Since it is Memoirs of a Geisha, it does make some sense for the book to only lightly touch upon that time when circumstances caused her to temporarily resign that identity.
What I appreciate most about the novel is its subtlety. The path of the plot seems predictable, but there are elements that help to keep the reader in doubt as to just where Sayuri will be at the end of the novel and what that path looks like. The characters play the greatest role in keeping the reader guessing. The culture and the training of a geisha especially prepare the characters for a lifetime of concealing one’s true intentions. Even greater than Golden’s ability to agreeably educate the reader in the complexities of the culture is his faithful and unflinching portrayal of these multifaceted characters. From the petty jealousies of Hatsumomo, bent on the destruction of Sayuri’s career even before it can start to the inexplicable empathy of the Chairman towards an upset young girl.