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Memoirs of a Geisha (audio abridged)

by Arthur Golden

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I found the abridged audio version of this book to be an unpleasant listening experience. In the name of cultural relativism, I was willing to set aside my visceral reaction to the institutionalized slavery and child abuse at the heart of this account. After all, the author's goal clearly was to illustrate a bygone culture, not to moralize. But for the account to have legitimacy, it had to be accurate. In contrast, Arthur Golden’s story felt false and exploitative, catering to a Western male fantasy with a thinly- veiled Cinderella story peopled with submissive, compliant “Oriental” (sic) women.

Is that perspective too judgmental? Perhaps; but I’m struck by the number of negative reviews at Amazon, some from people steeped in Japanese culture and traditions who objected to this book as being historically inaccurate and culturally insensitive. This view also was expressed by the former geisha whom Golden interviewed at great length for the sake of the book (see the note below).

Such cultural issues aside, I thought the writing was amateurish, cliché- ridden, and annoying. The plot was trite, the dialogue was tedious, and the ending was simply not believable. The story is told in the first person by the purported geisha. However, her sentences contained Western slang and idioms of a kind an unskilled American writer would draw upon when grasping for a phrase; and they were interspersed with supposed “Japanese” metaphors (involving crickets, grains of rice, gongs, and so on) that commonly did not ring true.

As for the Cinderella nature of the tale, the protagonist (Chiyo) is sold at the age of 9 by her poverty- stricken parents into a geisha boarding house, along with her older sister Satsu. Satsu is forced into prostitution and the two girls become orphans upon the death of their parents. Chiyo is treated badly; she lives with a money - obsessed woman whom she calls “Mother”, along with stand-ins for “wicked stepsisters.” In view of the Cinderella parallels, it may be more than coincidence that Chiyo lives with a young girl named "Pumpkin". By story’s end, she has been rescued by a Prince Charming like figure, an older man called “the Chairman” whom she has contrived to encounter.

Despite the recurring motifs of kimonos and the endless drinking and pouring of tea, this seemed to be a semi-exoticized version of a cheap romance novel, cast in a stereotypical mode. The young, prospective geisha are shallow and manipulative. and compete for male attention with sophomoric tricks. The “Chairman” who rescues Chiyo is a wealthy, powerful man whom she has dreamed of since she was a little girl, when he bought an ice cream for her. Gaining him as a lover and protector gives her the security she has longed for. As for the sex (including the protagonist’s descriptions of intercourse with the man who won the auction for her virginity), they left me feeling mildly disgusted – as they apparently did the narrator herself. There is no eroticism; sex is something done by males to the females who endure it.

Told in the first person, the audio version is narrated in breathy, Japanese-accented English by a voice that sounds like that of a 10 year old girl. As the story progresses, the voice does not mature – a discomfiting incongruity by the end of the tale, where the narrator is purportedly a mature woman looking back on her life. That lack of development may unintentionally reveal a truth – since it parallels the lack of character development of the protagonist who seemingly remains childlike throughout.

One caveat to the above is that the audio version of this book is extremely abridged, since it may be that I’ve judged it unfairly. However, while the reviews at Amazon (and the Wikipedia summary) reveal a tale with a more complex plot and several more characters, they also suggest that major weaknesses identified above are integral to the work itself. Therefore, I have no inclination to seek out the book itself.

Note: Mineko Iwasaki, a former geisha that Arthur Golden interviewed at length for his book, sued the author in 2002 for breach of contract and defamation of character (on the grounds that thanked her in the book's acknowledgements). Among other complaints, she argued that the practice of auctioning of virginity was not done in the Gion district of Kyoto, and was certainly not done to her. Golden denied that there ever was an oral agreement to not to mention her name, and that besides, his novel was a fictional portrayal. The lawsuit was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. In being skeptical of the lawsuit, I’m struck by the fact that Iwasaki was born in 1949 (after World War II), whereas the protagonist of Golden’s story was born ~25 years earlier, well before that war, in a Japan of a different era. Thus, Iwasaki's claim that he was describing her own life (in post- Emperor, MacArthur- era Japan) is not very believable. Meanwhile, in rebuttal of Iwasaki, other geisha eventually came forward to acknowledge that in the geisha system, virginities of teenage girls were sometimes auctioned off at high price. ( )
2 vote danielx | Jan 27, 2018 |
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