Book # 22 of 2009
Back in college, everyone was reading Memoirs of a Geisha, naturally sending me running in the opposite direction, especially when the movie came out.
Then when I discovered BookMooch, I decicded to go and get myself a copy, only it turned out to be a mass market paperback (I am admittedly a mass market paperback snob) so I was reluctant to pick it up and I packed it on my RORO trip but a few pages ended up getting squashed inside my luggage (bus compartments and all)… Then I got a trade paperback copy from an FFP book swap, although I still didn’t read it. Finally, I was able to mooch a hardcover copy from Triccie early this year and I’ve pretty much run out of excuses already.
Like The Kite Runner, this book needs no introduction. I read it on and off for a couple of days, and it was interesting enough to keep me reading until the end, but not so compelling that I could not put it down.
My bone to pick with the book is that while it is well-written (style-wise) and gives an insight into the geisha culture, the voice is startlingly Western, as if I was watching an anime character that has been dubbed over by an American accent. Aside from Golden giving the story a “fairy tale” (in Sayuri’s mind) ending, Sayuri’s cluttered train of thought was so distractingly un-Japanese, and I found myself looking for the quiet subtlety I’ve come to admire in Japanese writers.
I actually want to talk about another geisha book, one we read for Great Books class back in college, and was really memorable to me: Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata.
Kawabata is the first Japanese author to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, and Snow Country is his first full-length novel.
Snow Country, often touted as the convergence of haiku and a novel, is a tragic love story set in a geisha district in snowy Western Japan.
I love the juxtaposition of beauty and sadness (a specialty of Kawabata’s — he has another novel entitled Beauty and Sadness) in Snow Country, the breathtaking but bleak snow-capped mountains providing the perfect backdrop for this theme.
“In the depths of the mirror the evening landscape moved by, the mirror and the reflected figures like motion pictures superimposed one on the other. The figures and the background were unrelated, and yet the figures, transparent and intangible, and the background, dim in the gathering darkness, melted into a sort of symbolic world not of this world. Particularly when a light out in the mountains shone in the center of the girl’s face, Shimamura felt his chest rise at the inexpressible beauty of it.”
The tragic love affair is between the wealthy Shimamura and the hot-spring (provincial) geisha Komako. Shimamura trifles with feelings while Komako’s whole being revolves around them. Komako devotes all of herself to Shimamura, with full knowledge that the more they love each other, the farther apart they’ll become.
As plots go, nothing much happens in this book, but the moving emotion of Kawabata’s writing makes it a masterpiece.
I especially like this passage on journalling books:
“But even more than her diary, Shimamura was surprised at her statement that she had carefully cataloged every novel and short story she had read since she was fifteen or sixteen. The record already filled ten notebooks.
“You write down your criticisms, do you?”
“I could never do anything like that. I just write down the author and the characters and how they are related to each other. That is about all.”
“But what good does it do?”
“None at all.”
“A waste of effort.”
“A complete waste of effort,” she answered brightly, as though the admission meant little to her. She gazed solemnly at Shimamura, however.
A complete waste of effort. For some reason Shimamura wanted to stress the point. But, drawn to her at that moment, he felt a quiet like the voice of the rain flow over him. He knew well enough that for her it was in fact no waste of effort, but somehow the final determination that it was had the effect of distilling and purifying the woman’s existence.”
With all these books about geisha, wired_lain, a BookMooch friend in Japan, tells me that the geisha are getting sick of so much attention from tourists, who bug them to take photos. I can just imagine how irritating that is.
My copy: Memoirs of A Geisha, hardcover; Snow Country, trade paperback
My rating: Memoirs of A Geisha, 3/5 stars; Snow Country, 5/5 stars