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June 1999

Memoirs of a Geisha

A book review of Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Giesha

Memoirs of a Geisha* by Arthur Golden Vintage, 1998 A title as titillating as "Memoirs of a Giesha"--with its implicit promise of intimate revelations and a glimpses into a long-shrouded world--is irresistible. It is, therefore, acutely disappointing that Arthur Golden has failed to shape this rich trove of fact into the scintillating, multi-dimensional novel he might have written, Instead, he has gathered a great deal of research and stuffed it into the unconvincing form of a fictional geisha's recollections. The effect is that of a term paper masquerading as a Harlequin romance. These "memoirs" are the accounts of Sayuri, a much coveted geisha from the district of Gion, Japan. Beginning with her impoverished rural childhood in the twenties, she describes the conditions that compelled her father to sell her into the sordid world of the okiya (brothels). As Sayuri is assimilated into the hierarchies and codes of comportment, she relates to the reader her sense of wonder and disgust at all she encounters. She is schooled in the refined arts of classical dance, tea ceremony, elaborate dress and coiffure. Golden's depiction of geisha's as cultivated conversationalists and repositories of aesthetic refinement-as well as purveyors of physical pleasure-remind Western readers that the cliché "geisha girl" is an insulting stereotype of a complex traditional figure, deeply rooted in Japanese art and tradition. When the market is deemed ripe for the introduction of a fresh apprentice, Sayuri becomes a prized commodity. The availability of a new geisha's highly valued minzuage (defloration) spurs extravagant bidding among the district's elite. Once launched as a full-fledged geisha, Sayuri swirls in exclusive rounds of high-paying clients until the Chairman, a man she has long admired, becomes her danna (patron), and withdraws from her circulation. The books final chapters hurredly recount her subsequent move to New York City and her decorous old age. Regrettably, Golden labors under the delusion that the authenticity of Sayuri's account is enhanced by the simplistic language and worn clichés he employs throughout. A woman of polish and accomplishment is hardly likely to have expressed herself in such wooden, lifeless phrases. Moreover, the characters who surround her in a pink haze, like so many other cherry blossoms, do little more than color the scene.

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