Books: Memoirs of a Geisha

February 26, 2017

[I wrote this in January and just realized today I had never posted it.]

I’m sure I had heard of Memoirs of a Geisha, but it was never anything I had considered reading before it was announced as our book club’s selection for this month’s meeting. (I’m not sure what I had expected it to be like – true-life memoirs of a geisha, probably.) But that’s one reason I’m in a book club, to read books I wouldn’t be likely to read otherwise (and to have book-loving friends to talk about them with).

The (fake) translator’s note at the beginning notwithstanding, this is not anyone’s memoirs, just a novel written in that form. Apparently it is convincing enough that some people believe there is a real-life Suriya. If the book hadn’t said “a novel by Arthur Golden” on the front (not the name he used for the translator’s note), I might have thought so myself.

Golden does mention under Acknowledgements at the end that it is a work of fiction, but how many people read the Acknowledgements? Usually it is a list of people who are very important to the author but mostly unknown to the average reader. Golden acknowledges that he learned a great deal about the life of a geisha from a real geisha, Mineko Iwasaki.

Unfortunately, this acknowledgement was a cause of grief rather than gratitude for her, as people blamed her for what Golden had written, even where it was not based on what she had told him. Mineko Iwasaki filed suit against Arthur Golden, claiming that he had agreed to keep her identity secret (he denied this), and that being named in the book had caused serious damage to her reputation in the geisha community (she is retired but has – or had – friendships there).

She later wrote her own book, Geisha: A Life, to tell the true story as a counter to Golden’s fictional version (perversion, in her opinion). While I enjoyed reading Memoirs of a Geisha while I was reading it, once I was finished I was disappointed in the way Golden had concluded Suriya’s story. All that struggle and suffering, all the tension in her relationships with the man she wanted and the man who wanted her, and then abruptly it’s all wrapped up and over.

So I was very curious to learn more about the reality behind the novel, and I eagerly looked for Geisha: A Life at the library. There is certainly much that is the same in terms of the daily life and activities of a geisha, or of a girl preparing to become one. But at the end I felt I had a good deal more insight into a geisha’s life from the autobiography than from the novel.

I don’t know how much of that is because I knew it was an autobiography, and how much the difference between someone telling real experiences and someone making them up. You can make up circumstances that are far more dramatic in some cases, but it is hard for an imagined autobiography – especially a debut novel – to have the same psychological depth of a real one, especially in unless the author has similar experiences (which of course Golden has not).

There are heartbreak, cruelty, ambition, triumph, and disappointment in both books. Both tell the story of a girl’s struggle to become a geisha, her triumph, and then leaving that life behind. But on the whole, I found the autobiography to be the better story.