“Memoirs provide a record not so much of the memoirist as of the memoirists world.” How can a rabbit hopping through the grass accurately tell how it is looking, it can only tell how the grass around it is looking from its own eyes. With these lines in the book’s introduction, I excitedly took on the enchanting journey of the Memoirs of a Geisha. I already knew in my heart that I would enjoy the book and I thoroughly did.
It is a drama story told in first person by the lead Geisha – Chiyo or Sayuri – herself. It is stirringly self-reflective, quite shocking sometimes and makes you want to believe in fate or fortune. I really enjoyed the book because it gives very vivid and colorful descriptions of the traditions, customs and code of conduct which is new and unknown to the outsiders. This fascinating history and culture is neatly woven into the story of a lead Geisha, her ties with her abjectly poor fisherman’s family, the story of being sold by a seemingly kind man, her older sister, the politics of an Okiya, the competitions and jealousy that has no rules or boundaries, broken friendships, the journey of becoming a Geisha and then making one’s own future. It is a life full of struggle.
It occured to me only after reading the book that the story was also as much about the intertwined lives of characters around her like Mameha, Hatsumomo, Pumpkin, even her older sister Satsu (who failed to become a Geisha), as Sayuri herself, because every Geisha is unique and so are her experiences. By bringing those other Geisha’s into the story in such great detail, the author has very smartly presented the different directions a Geisha’s life could take.
The book breaks the myth that Geisha’s are prostitutes. It also gives very engrossing account of their lives and what makes a Geisha, a Geisha. A Geisha is a summation of the various roles she plays of an entertainer, an artist, a lover, a secret keeper, even a maid or a waitress in some sense, her surroundings, past, present, her Dona and admirers, her stylish complicated Kimonos and hairstyles, her parties, her Okiyas amongst many other things.
This line summed up for me how a Geisha thinks of her life- “Nowadays many people seem to believe their lives are entirely a matter of choice; but in my day we viewed ourselves as pieces of clay that forever show the fingerprints of everyone who has touched them.”
I repeatedly questioned whether she would be suffering more or less as a free but poverty stricken girl or as a sold child forced to become a Geisha. The way the story ended, I got my answer, but I also understood that the answer would likely vary depending on the circumstances. However, I support free choice any given day. But coming from India where social circumstances play a heavy role in one’s life, I have seen and personally experienced how other people could end up strongly influencing the direction of one’s life for better or for worse.
I thought bringing in the World War gave an interesting twist, in that, it not only gave an insight into how the common peoples lives were affected but also presented an opportunity to Sayuri to make her own choice – whether to end her Geisha career or to continue, a choice she did not have before. Sometimes she appears to be naive (even foolish at times in her circumstances) and stubborn, someone who is willing to risk everything she had in order to get what she wanted (which was usually not too much but in her situation, one would think she would know better than to demand anything.) . But this was also why she was different and daring; she didn’t see the value of things in the worldly sense, but followed her heart. Reminds me of this line from the book – “This is why dreams can be such dangerous things: they smolder on like a fire does, and sometimes they consume us completely.”
The book is full of drama, tension and mystery. It is very well written. The characters were colorful, the city and the world of Geisha were entertaining (and almost exotic for a while!), the war was dreadful and the love story carried the book for me.