Hazel McHaffie

Memoirs of a Geisha

Gaining perspective

A sobering wake up call this week. My recent stresses have been reduced to something south of miniscule. A book and a film have put them into a healthier context.

The film featured in the Edinburgh International Film FestivalI am Breathing. Neil Platt was 33 when he was diagnosed with an inherited form of Motor Neurone Disease. Before he died aged 34 he wanted to do something to campaign for greater recognition of the disease and for more research funding. So he wrote a blog (using a frustratingly capricious voice-recognition machine) and allowed cameras to film his last months.

I am Breathing had its first showing around the world in just under 200 venues last Friday, Global Awareness Day for MND/ALS. You could have heard a pin drop in the cinema where I was. It’s extremely powerful, harrowing even, and yet it had its lighter moments thanks to Neil himself and his sense of the ridiculous. And at the end, his widow, Louise, appeared in person for a question and answer session. I had a dozen questions I’d like to have asked; I didn’t have the courage to ask even one. Somehow Neil’s halting testament through a machine, as the ventilator pumped each breath into him, had to stand alone.

The book was one I actually read about two years ago, but for some reason that now escapes me didn’t blog about at the time: Memoirs of a Geisha.

Imagine you’re a nine year old girl, a rural innocent, living in a tipsy house, in a primitive village in Japan in the 1920s. You can’t read or write, and washing involves a swim in a murky pond down the road.

One day a suave and sophisticated man comes into your village and you’re told he wants to take you and your sister into the next village. Your father has consented to this trip. But ‘the next village’ turns out to be far far away and you come to realise you have been sold into a form of slavery. You must obey every instruction blindly. You must succumb to horrendous degradation and abuse. If you accept all this for years you willmay gradually emerge to a life of beautiful clothes, rich gifts and the attentions of many powerful men. But the rewards are superficial. In return you must submit to sex on demand, being constantly paraded as a trophy, a life without choice or love.Japanese geishaIt sounds as if Memoirs will be a harrowing read, a real misery memoir, but not a bit of it. The inner strength and acceptance of this young woman, Sayuri, shines through, seeming to echo the calm untrammelled face she has to apply. Her resilience made me feel ashamed of ever complaining about my own lot in life.

When she hesitantly shares with her mentor her dream of better things, she’s told: ‘We don’t become geisha so our lives will be satisfying. We become geisha because we have no other choice.

She confides that she harbours a hope of one day finding someone she can love, who loves her in return, and a more experienced geisha says: ‘Young girls hope all sorts of foolish thing, Sayuri. Hopes are like hair ornaments. Girls want to wear too many of them. When they become old women they look silly wearing even one.’ Profound sentiments worth pondering.

These girls acquire a wisdom borne of survival. They believe their ‘destiny’ is mapped out in the stars; they accept it as beyond their power to change. And alongside that certainty comes a calm resignation that sustains them through the most hideous experiences.

They have their own standards:
Remember, Chiyo, geisha are not courtesans. And we are not wives. We sell our skills, not our bodies. We create another secret world, a place only of beauty. The very word “geisha” means artist and to be a geisha is to be judged as a moving work of art.’
She paints her face to hide her face. Her eyes are deep water. It is not for geisha to want. It is not for geisha to feel. Geisha is an artist of the floating world. She dances, she sings. She entertains you, whatever you want. The rest is shadows, the rest is secret.

I was late coming to this book, I know. And no, I haven’t seen the film either. But I do know that Memoirs of a Geisha has enjoyed huge success and been translated into thirty-two languages. It took Arthur Golden, ten years to write and he changed the narrative voice three times before finally settling on the first person viewpoint of Sayuri. I found her voice perfect for purpose. But as well as being taken to court by the geisha girl who informed the story, the author has been criticised for the ‘Cinderella ending’, and I confess I have a sneaking sympathy with that comment: I didn’t like it either. But then I only need to compare what eventually happens to Sayuri to the dreams and aspirations of a young woman in Britain in the twenty first century, to recognise that her ‘happy ending’ is a shadow of what might have been.

At once sobering, entertaining and haunting.

As I said, my stresses really aren’t worth worrying about.

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