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Memoirs of a Geisha

By Kate Tuttle

MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, by Arthur Golden. Alfred A. Knopf, 394 pages, $25.

OCTOBER 13, 1997:  Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden's first novel, is anything but trendy.

It's Dickensian, plot-driven, full of hidden identities, secret deals, and not-so-startling coincidences. And when was the last time you heard of a white man attempting first-person narration in the guise of a nonwhite woman? Now that the memoir bandwagon is sagging under all those late pilers-on, Golden has the audacity not only to write a novel completely divorced from the autobiographical, but to then frame it as a memoir.

But Golden, a Brookline resident with degrees in Japanese history and English, has the talent to justify his chutzpah. From the opening pages, in which he introduces nine-year-old Chiyo, who lives with her family in a "tipsy house" nearly falling into the ocean, his illusion holds. It's easy to forget the author was born in Tennessee when we listen to Chiyo recall a rainstorm approaching her fishing village:

The fishermen on the inlet began to soften as they disappeared within the curtain of rain, and then they were gone completely. I could see the storm climbing the slope toward me. The first drops hit me like quail eggs, and in a matter of seconds I was as wet as if I'd fallen into the sea.

Soon after, while running down a muddy path, Chiyo does fall. She winds up meeting the mysterious Mr. Tanaka, a rich man from a neighboring town, when he tends to her cut lip. It's an encounter straight out of Great Expectations. There's never any doubt Mr. Tanaka will eventually take Chiyo away from her drab village, her dying mother, her morose father. After an enchanting visit to Mr. Tanaka's estate, Chiyo cherishes the hope that he plans to adopt her and her sister. But the reader, wise to the ways of cherished hopes, knows something else is in store. The first clue is when Mr. Tanaka has the girls examined -- naked -- by a cross old woman who pronounces them "very suitable" and "intact." Sure enough, before long Chiyo and her sister are on the train to Kyoto: Chiyo to study the ways of the geisha, her less lovely sister bound for a house of prostitution.

Westerners will be forgiven for not understanding the difference, but Chiyo -- soon to bear her geisha name, Sayuri -- fills us in: "A true geisha will never soil her reputation by making herself available to men on a nightly basis." She will, however, enter into a long-term arrangement for regular and exclusive sex with a man rich enough to support her, her maids, and the expensive kimonos she needs for success. Making such a match requires years of preparation -- lessons in dancing, music, and tea ceremony, among others -- and consultation of the stars, Chinese horoscopes, and almanacs. And, of course, some serious Machiavellian scheming.

All of which Golden portrays with a seamless authority that's astounding in a first novel. Despite what must have amounted to years of research, he never overwhelms the narrative with didactic detail. Readers learn intimate secrets of geisha life -- and lots of Japanese vocabulary -- but Golden judiciously embeds these lessons within lively, delicate scenes. As Chiyo/Sayuri maneuvers through the dangerous waters of Kyoto's teahouse society, the author sketches a milieu of malevolent beauty in which his heroine encounters boorish government ministers, bohemian painters, and cutthroat rival geishas. She describes, with charming naïveté, the man whose high bid allows him to take her virginity. After his huffing, clumsy performance, he saves a cotton swab stained with her blood for his collection of such trophies.

Unfortunately, Memoirs of a Geisha rarely explores the weirdness that must lurk in the geisha world -- a tradition built upon young women charming and distracting older men, easing away their tensions through a highly ritualized performance of teasing subservience. Ever smiling, the geisha soothes and entices, but at what cost to herself? As vital and witty as Sayuri is, she -- like all the book's characters -- shies away from reflection. Romance, adventure, and atmosphere are Golden's concerns here, not psychological exploration.

And yet, despite its characters' limitations, Memoirs of a Geisha is deeply insightful. If the book's foreground is all plot, the background is where its emotional and philosophical energies lie. Through poetic, minutely detailed descriptions of the costumes, ornaments, and daily lives of the geisha, Golden subtly challenges our aesthetic assumptions. To Western eyes, the tight, heavy, stiffly tied kimono may seem forbidding, lacking in sensual allure. Yet its layers -- each a different color and pattern -- begin to suggest an ornately wrapped package, more a seductive pathway than a closed door. And in performing the traditional songs and dances, each geisha must imagine her way into works older than her ancestors. This is not mere imitation but a kind of creativity that subverts the American preference for expressive individuality.

Though the momentum flags toward the end, and some of the characters are given to romance-novel posturing, Golden's graceful intelligence keeps his book aloft. So what if it's not postmodern, or even modern? Memoirs of a Geisha is an intoxicating and illuminating debut.

Kate Tuttle is a writer living in Cambridge.

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