Autobiography of a Geisha by Sayo Masuda

geishaI bought this book hot on the heels of having read and loved Arthur Golden’s ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’. I had lost myself in the world of ‘flower and willow’ whilst reading it and wasn’t ready to return. An autobiography seemed like something that would satisfy my need for a window onto the real world that Golden romanticised so well. It turned out that this book provided that and so much more.

In essence, the life of Sayo Masuda is very similar to the geisha life described in Golden’s book. At a young age she was indentured to a geisha house by her mother, who went on to marry and have further children by another man to Masuda’s father. This is the tale of her life as she trains and becomes a practising geisha and further. It tells of the wide range of jobs and schemes she was involved in afterwards in her struggle to survive whilst bringing up her half-brother.

It is simply written, although the nuances of translation do not fully do justice to the distinction linguistically between the most basic form of Japanese that she wrote in and what would have been more usual in a written work, there being no equivalent distinction in English. What this does mean is that the writing seems very natural, almost as if the reader is privy to an audience with Masuda herself. She is certainly a narrator with whom I had no problem empathising. Her descriptions of all parts of her life came alive and provided a real view of what actual geisha life and ex-geisha life was in Japan during this time. It was fascinating to read the portrayal of the day-to-day existence she lived.

The difference between this and Golden’s book lies not in the description (I was impressed, having read this, how accurate his portrayal of geisha life was), but in the ultimate genre of the book. This work, being non-fiction, held none of the soothing elements of Golden’s tale – for Masuda, there was no simple happy ending for life doesn’t provide them in the way a fiction novel does. Her tragedies and heartbreaks were real and this resonates with the reader. Her life as a geisha was skirting around the edges of what could be described as prostitution. Whereas in Golden’s book, the focus was strongly on the level of the artisan, here we are aware that the reality was placed more firmly in the arena of the courtesan.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the whole novel is the ‘Afterword’, where G.G.Rowley (the translator) gives a brief description of his attempts to meet Masuda. I will leave it to you to find this yourself, but will go so far as to say tht this, above all, shows the wide reaching personal implications of geisha life.

I can strongly recommend this book as both an historic record and a personal history. If you have already read ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’, then it is essential background reading. If you haven’t, then it is a poignant and sensitive portrait of an individual and a culture foreign to the Western mind but not so alien as to be dismissed with detachment.

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