Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

April Books 11) Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden

I got this book basically because it was a best-seller near the top of various LibraryThing lists and easily mooch-able. It is the story of Nitta Sayuri's apprenticeship and youth as a top geisha in Gion, the geisha district of Kyoto, in the period before, during and after the second world war; and how she eventually acquired a powerful patron who allowed her to move to New York.

I wasn't really sure about the book at first. The writer is a white man trying to depict the world of an Asian woman living in a secretive sub-culture. We get a lot of interesting plot about Sakuri's relationships with the men and women in her life, but surprisingly little, I thought, about the music, literature and dance that the geisha were preserving and propagating. The potentially vivid background seemed to me a little out of focus.

I was dismayed on further research to discover that my suspicions were well-founded. Mineko Iwasaki, Golden's major research source, sued him for, as she saw it, misusing the confidential information about the geisha lifestyle that she had given him (eventually settling out of court). Part of this may have been the inevitable dismay people suffer when someone takes their story and fictionalises it - remember the howls from some of the Maguire Seven at the liberties taken with events in In The Name of the Father? But one crucial scene - the auctioning of Sayuri's virginity, a practice described by Golden as mizuage, which occupies a key narrative point in the very middle of the book - is according to Iwasaki completely fictional; she stresses that there is absolutely no element of prostitution at all to the geisha system, at least as she knew it in the 1950s.

This is a pretty serious matter, which undermines the credibility of the entire book. Iwasaki may be kidding herself, of course; but her assertions cast a dubious light on on Golden's reliability and motivation, and convert his writing from fictionalised documentary to an erotic Orientalist fantasy of cultural appropriation. I didn't actually enjoy it that much, but would have felt somewhat soiled if I had taken it on its own merits.
Tags: bookblog 2009

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