This is a seductive and evocative epic on an intimate scale, which tells the extraordinary story of a geisha girl. Summoning up more than twenty years of Japan's most dramatic history, it uncovers a hidden world of eroticism and enchantment, exploitation and degradation. From a small fishing village in 1929, the tale moves to the glamorous and decadent heart of Kyoto in the 1930s, where a young peasant girl is sold as servant and apprentice to a renowned geisha house. She tells her story many years later from the Waldorf Astoria in New York; it exquisitely evokes another culture, a different time and the details of an extraordinary way of life. It conjures up the perfection and the ugliness of life behind rice-paper screens, where young girls learn the arts of geisha - dancing and singing, how to wind the kimono, how to walk and pour tea, and how to beguile the most powerful men.
"We don't become geisha so our lives will be satisfying. We become geisha because we have no other choice."
'Memoirs of a geisha' by Arthur Golden is an evocative narrative that tells the emotional and extraordinary day-to-day life story of a geisha girl in the 1930s and 1940s. It is written from the pov of the geisha.
Chiyo is a very poor girl with lovely grey eyes living in a 'tipsy' house on a hill in a small fishing village. She lives with her very ill mother, old father and her sister Satsu. One day Chiyo and her sister are taken away from their home to the Gion district of Kyoto. Here the sisters are immediately separated. Chiyo is taken to an 'okiya' or geisha house. In Gion she is sent to school to learn the arts of entertaining by taking classes in music, dance, tea ceremonies and comportment but, "The training of an apprentice geisha is an arduous path."
"We were made to toughen up our hands by holding them in ice water until we cried from pain ... And in fact toughening the hands in this way really did help me play better."
In the okiya, Chiyo suffers terribly at the cruel hands of the resident geisha Hatsumomo. Due to Chiyo's beautiful features, this geisha sees a rival in her and does all she can to get rid of her. The 'Mother' of the okiya does not care about Chiyo either, she cares only about her account books and sees Chiyo just as a business opportunity.
One day, while a young Chiyo is crying near a stream, a very elegant man comes in her aid. He is accompanied by a geisha who calls him 'Chairman'. This man speaks gently to Chiyo, and before he goes away, he gives her his handkerchief and a coin to buy some sweets. This is the first person to have talked kindly to Chiyo since she came to Gion. She is immediately infatuated with and drawn to this man, though she doesn't know who he is. From this day onwards, the Chairman is always in Chiyo's thoughts. Who is this man? Will she ever see him again? Will he recognize her?
Years pass. Under the direction of a beautiful geisha called Mameha, Chiyo has now become an established geisha named Sayuri. Mameha ensures that Sayuri is known by all men and mistresses of Gion's many teahouses. Sayuri has now reached the moment of her 'mizuage'. In other words, wealthy men bid money and the highest bidder wins the right to deflower her. Who will win this right?
Sayuri's story goes on during the horrible war years and afterwards when she has to attract a 'danna', that is a wealthy man who pays all her expenses and buys her gifts in return for the pleasure of her company and services. Sayuri has only one man in her mind for this role but the odds of her dream ever becoming a reality are almost nonexistant.
In my opinion the story tends to drag a bit towards the last part. Another thing is that I found rather far-fetched the fact that this girl spent almost her entire existence obsessed with this one man and with only one aim in her mind - to be the Chairman's lover.
Having said that, I really had a great time reading this book. The narrative is almost poetic at times. I learned a lot about the Japanese Geisha culture. The author uses Japanese terms (with their explanation) to draw the reader more into the story. 'Memoirs of a geisha' is a very entertaining, well-researched story.