Imagine living a life where everything that ever mattered to you was for sale. Imagine living a life, where your very purity and chastity are, but objects to be auctioned off to the highest bidder possible. Imagine living the life of Sayuri Nitta, one of the most prominent geishas of Japan.
With his very first work, author Arthur Golden has created a masterpiece. It is a novel which is written in the richly expressive style of the much earlier genre of the bildungsroman. Memoirs of a Geisha chronicles the life of one of the most prolific geisha of Japan, Nitta Sayuri.
First and foremost, the novel seeks to break the common myth that the geisha are naught but common prostitutes. Delving deeper into the novel, one realizes that a geisha is an artist, an artist in whom talents have been cultivated. A geisha is someone who entertains through the captivating charm of her company and not mere physical attraction. Reading the novel, the reader will be struck by the extreme visual impact that Golden creates with his spellbinding wordplay. In the day and age of modern fiction where writers seek to create more of a mental impact than anything else, Golden comes as a breath of fresh air. He has been able to create or rather recreate the world of the geisha in intense and vivid hues.
Sayuri is the daughter of a poor fisherman, and, along with her sister, is sucked into a world where connoisseurs of such living art, bid for a girl’s virginity as if it was a rare commodity to be possessed. As with all geisha, the same plight befalls Sayuri as well.
Aided with a ready wit, a pair of rare green eyes, as well as Mameha, her patron geisha, she slowly rises to the top. However, in a world where all is for sale, including love, Sayuri commits the most fatal error of all. She falls in love with the elusive Chairman after he performs a minor act of kindness for her. Decades pass without him paying the least bit of attention to her and Sayuri passes those long years consoling herself with the soothing memories of his voice and his sublime presence. Finally, after more than two decades of mutual, unspoken and utterly platonic love, the two finally unite.
Reading the novel somehow strengthens one’s belief in the foolish ideals of love that the modern sceptic scorns. Long obsolete values of chastity and longing come flooding back into the mind, yanking us back from the abyss of bitterness and cynicism that we have fallen into. It is perhaps ironic that a novel all about a world ruled with a materialistic hand should preach lessons of undying love.
Golden’s meticulous eye for detail reminds us of Tolkien’s sharp and detailed imagery. Similarly, Golden’s descriptions, though intricate, are never tedious.
However, Memoirs of a Geisha, will do no wonders of the already established Asian stereotypical image that the world believes in. Rather, it strengthens the image of Asia as the enigmatic and exotic seductress. Most of the women in the novel are steeped in deception and intrigue. It is orientalism at its very best.
To be honest, it is very difficult to be objectively critical about this novel. The author has given the expression “pen picture” a completely new definition. It is a novel which soothes your eyes and rends your heart with bittersweet exotica. Memoirs of a Geisha has the brilliant and feverish hues of a Van Gogh, and at other times has the calm spirituality of a John Constable.
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