FIRST OFF, THESE are not the memoirs of a geisha. This is a work of historical fiction, written by a Harvard professor, about a geisha working in the 1930s. Some critics, including John David Morley for the New York Times Book Review, have balked at the audacity of an American male, "specifically an American who received his academic training in the postwar years," speaking for the body and soul of a Japanese woman born in the 1920s. As if that weren't enough, Morley sulks, "he has decided to invent a voice for her, inviting readers to approach her world in the most intimate fashion--quite a daunting ventriloquist act to undertake in a first novel."
A curious criticism, if also unfair and beside the point. Aren't fiction writers supposed to stretch their empathy and imagination to give birth to all sorts of characters and scenarios? What would happen to art and literature if artists were only allowed to create accurate portraits of themselves? Boring, that's what. Identity politics may be a worthy topic for discussion, but it doesn't necessarily make great art. What of The Good Earth, written by Pearl Buck, an American woman, about prerevolutionary China as seen through the eyes of a poor, male Chinese peasant? And, while we're at it, how dare Shakespeare, an Englishman if ever there were one, pen Othello, from the perspective of a Moor? But Pearl Buck and Shakespeare were fantastic writers who created worlds and characters with great depth; unfortunately, Mr. Golden is not and does not.
The heroine of Memoirs of a Geisha is Chiyo Sakamoto, the daughter of a poor fisherman, and after a series of Dickensian turns, she becomes Sayuri, one of Kyoto's most-sought-after geishas. During the Depression years, Chiyo and her older sister Satsu are sold into slavery by their father. Satsu, who is not so fetching, becomes a lowly prostitute; soon after, she runs away from the brothel never to surface in the book again. Chiyo endures a no-less-harrowing apprenticeship in a boardinghouse for geishas, rising through the ranks to topple the beautiful but scheming Hatsumomo from her ruling roost.
Years later, sitting in her apartment in Manhattan, owner of her own tea house in New York, Sayuri sits down to dictate her memoirs to Jakob Haarhuis, a fictional professor of Japanese at New York University. Memoirs of a Geisha is supposed to be a transcription of those tapes. Emphasizing this faux-vérité in the author's epilogue, Golden informs us that "although the characters of Sayuri and her story are completely invented, the historical facts of a geisha's day-to-day life in the 1930s and 1940s are not." Sayuri was invented? No kidding.
Golden's literary device is about as believable as pigs in space. It's difficult to accept, for example, that a 14-year-old girl, in a flurry of emotion, would think something like the following: "I'd never understood how closely things are connected to one another.... We must use whatever methods we can to understand the movement of the universe around us and time our actions so that we are not fighting the currents, but moving with them." And for a book of memoirs about a girl moving through adolescence while becoming a geisha, there is surprisingly no mention of her sexual or physical development. Does she ever go through menstruation, develop breasts, discover a crush on anyone other than "the Chairman," her predestined knight in shining armor? Sayuri is given all of the complexity of a wooden puppet dressed in a kimono, posed and placed by the author to demonstrate his knowledge of the centuries-old tradition of the geisha.
Some of the dialog is embarrassingly grade B, such as when Chiyo/Sayuri first bumps into the Chairman on the busy streets of Gion. He presumably takes one look into her blue-gray eyes before announcing, "Someone has been cruel to you...or perhaps life has been cruel." More annoying still is Golden's tendency to abandon threads of character development in favor of showing off some tidbit of knowledge that we, as American readers, wouldn't know. Long descriptions of traditional geisha behavior are pronounced by characters who would otherwise seem to be engaged in the thick of the plot: "We bowed and went inside, and afterward knelt on the mats then closed the door behind us--for this is the way a geisha enters a room."
Unfortunately, Memoirs of a Geisha feels like it was written by a student so eager to get an A that he avoided writing with emotion and imagination, aiming instead for mere accuracy. If there's a lesson for this ambitious professor, it may be the following: The crime in works of cross-cultural imagination is less a result of the commission than the self-conscious cover-up.