Arthur Golden (1998) Memoirs of a Geisha.

Arthur Golden (1998) Memoirs of a Geisha.

I’d already read Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha. Perhaps I didn’t appreciate in the way I should the first time. A few things I remembered:  it was set in Japan, and it was seemingly a memoir about a Geisha. The sort of information that even the outgoing President of the United States would be able to pick up from flashcards, or the cover of the novel when prompted. Perhaps he would recognise that Japan wasn’t on his list of ‘shitty countries’ (that tend to be African) or on his axis of evil favoured by George W Bush. But the moron’s moron might confuse Japan with another country he was having a trade war with in the same way he had to be reminded what happened at Pearl Harbour.

Memoirs of a Geisha uses as a framing device a historian visiting an elderly Japanese woman, Sayuri, who has stayed in the Waldorf Tower in New York since 1956. In this way history becomes her-story. She asks him to write about her memories of Japan from her birth in 1920, through her training to be an apprentice Geisha girl in the hungry thirties of Kyoto. Her graduation, the selling of her virginity to the highest bidder which set a record in Japan. This allowed her to pay off all her debts before she was sixteen (although she claimed, modestly, her mentor Mameha’s virginity had sold for more in relative terms). The increasing militarisation of Kyoto. And the war years of deprivation, when the Geisha schools and tea houses were shut. Geisha girls were sent to work in factories. How the most celebrated of Kyoto’s Geisha’s elite scrambled to survive. The loss of the war, which brought the American’s, who didn’t rape and kill, as Sayuri  supposed they would, but were rather kind, flinging sweets to children (and detonating atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki which historians, and novelists, can contrast with Japanese troops’ attrocities in the annexation of Korea, the mass rape of ‘comfort girls’ and the genocidal Rape of Manchuria, but that’s another story or stories). So here we have post-feudal Japan from 1920 to1950 before it became one of the richest nations in the world around the 1980s, to be eclipsed by its rival China (which will soon eclipse America).

In terms of emotional plotting, it’s much simpler. It’s the tale of Cinderella. An older man, the Chairman, is kind to her when she is at her lowest, and gives her money to buy a sweet. He becomes the prince of her dreams, but Geisha girls don’t marry, although they did –or do—become paid consorts to the very rich. Prince Charming may have a wife, and a Geisha as consort and lover.   

Sayuri tells us there were over 800 Geisha houses in Gion when she began her training, and now there was less than sixty. The gei in geisha > means art. Her elder sister had been sold into prostitution, which was something different. Prostitution may be the oldest job in the world, but being a consort was a dying art. Geisha girls objectified the Japanese cultural idea of female beauty. Girls train from as young as three-years-old, for example, to play the lute, sing, and act in Geisha schools, and their studies continued after graduation. A spider’s web of industries evolved in small and larger cities which everyone including the tea houses were they perform has a cut of their fees for entertaining gentlemen.

Costumes that Geisha girls cost more than a year’s wages a labourer could hope to make. And any self-respecting Geisha, Mameha tells Sayuri, (and the reader) needs a varied collection of costumes so their clientele isn’t bored with the same old thing. Reputation is all.  Losing face isn’t just about getting old, but by selling sexual favours is to fall to the lowest rung of common prostitution. Geisha girls must be virginal, without being virgins and must learn to stir the pot of men’s needs and desires, in other words, to entertain. They must also find a rich man to fund their costly lifestyle, in which their time is metered. Each Geisha girl must become, in modern parlance, their own brand and pay their debts to their house mothers.

Each brand has its own house (okiya).

‘Whatever any of us thought about Hatsumomo she was like an empress in our okiya since she earned the income by which we all lived.’

Hatsumomo is the ugly sister in the Cinderella story. But although equal in beauty, to Sakuri’s ‘sister’— a term which applies to a Mameha who takes her from the closed world of being a maid to train and introduce into their enclosed world of Geisha—Hatsumomo is nasty and spiteful.

‘This is our foolish lower maid, said Hatsumomo. ‘She has a name, I think but why don’t you call her “Little Miss Stupid”.’  

The house brand with all its costumes is Hatsumumo’s. Her house ‘Mother’ and ‘Auntie’ are depended on her, as is the other trainee geisha and the servants, the lowest of which is ‘Litte Miss Stupid’.

Sayuri must knock Hatsumomo off her perch, claim the Chairman as her lover and become his consort. She must learn to be always a lady, but never seen with her claws out.  In a patriarchal, misogynist world, image matters more than substance. Love conquers all or something less meretricious that that. It follows the money? Read on.

Simon Sebag Montefiore (2003) Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar.

Simon Sebag Monefiore won the British history book of the year with his portrait of Stalin and his followers. They were always one step away from being shot, tortured in the Lubianka, and beaten to death. Their families facing the same fate, or being sent away to the gulags. Stalin only wanted true believers in Stalinism, in Marxism, in Leninism, in his leadership to a mythical Bolshevik and true socialist revolution. Self-taught, a voracious reader of books and men. Stalin saw plots and conspiracies everywhere. If they didn’t exist he would invent them. Yet when Hitler betrayed him and his troops invaded the Soviet Union, Stalin refused to believe he’d been duped, despite countless reports telling the Communist leader the day, Sunday 21st June 1941, Operation Barbarossa would take place. The Great Patriotic War, as the Soviet Leaders termed it, had begun and because its dictator refused to believe, the Soviet Union was unprepared.

The Soviet Union paid in blood. Around 27 million war deaths in the USSR, compared to less than 5.5 million German war deaths. British and American casualties of less than half a million. https://worldwar2-database.blogspot.com/2010/10/world-war-ii-casualties.html. Around two million German women raped in the advance to Berlin.   

Montefiore gives us other rough figures of Stalin and his henchmen’s tyranny. Two famines, constant hunger, ‘perhaps 20 million killed, 28 million deported, of whom 18 million had slaved in the gulags.’

‘Yet,’ Montefiore notes, ‘after so much slaughter, there were still believers’.

When what Churchill termed ‘the iron curtain’ had descended, the Allied nations that had won the war had split, Truman was in the Whitehouse, Labour were in power in Britain and Churchill like his country and the British Empire was bankrupt. America had the atomic bomb they had used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Soviet spies had made copies of their plans and the USSR was the second nuclear power with the explosion of the hydrogen bomb. Two world powers stood nose to nose.

True believers, then, as now, with Putin, suggest all this bloodletting and suffering was necessary. That the Soviet Union wouldn’t have been able to industrialise and mechanise in constant five-year plans and drag a largely rural nation in a short amount of time to face the existential threat of fascism and Hitler’s subjugation of what the Nazi leader thought of an inferior breed of Slavic people.  

Stalin, with his pock-marked face, false teeth and birth to a Georgian drunken father that beat him, and a mother that beat him even harder, would have fitted into the Nazi category on inferior. As it did to the Tsarist forces of Nikolai II Alexandrovich Romanov, before his abdication, 15th March 1917 and the rise of the Bolshevik Party led by Lenin. Montefiore deals with this in a chapter termed, That Wonderful Times, Stalin and Nadya, 1878-1932. And Montefiore despite the over 600 pages here, deals with it more fully in his book Young Stalin.   

These of course, weren’t wonderful times for all Soviet Citizens. The Politburo’s war against the kulaks, Stalin compared to Ivan the Terrible’s  culling of the boyars. Grain deliveries were taken from the peasants and millions such as those in Ukraine, the former grain basket of Russia, starved and mothers ate children. Montefiore focus is not on this, but in the semi-cult like activity of those close to Stalin, physically close; they lived beside each other and were in and out of each other’s apartments. Stalin allocated each family a car and an allowance. They held elaborate parties and some women dressed in the latest fashions from Paris. George Orwell got it pretty much right in his book, Animal Farm, with the red court of Stalin mimicking that of the late Tsar’s.

In 1922 Lenin effectively appointed Stalin as General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. After Lenin’s death, the threat to Stalin’s power came from Leon Trotsky. He didn’t forget or forgive. Laverenti Beria’s present to Stalin was to send assassins to Mexico and on August 1940 they finally succeeded in murdering him.

Beria was ‘one of the talented dirty trick specialists in quiet and quick deaths’. But he was also head of the NKVD, KGB, and SMERSH. He was prepared to torture, rape and murder in person, but also like Stalin to give others their head before torturing and killing them in turn. Stalin trusted no one. He deified his wife Nadya who committed suicide. He’d know her as a three-year-old girl, but courted and married her when she came to work for Lenin. A culprit had to be found and punished for her death.  Incestuous relationships between members of the Politburo were commonplace. Beria’s son, for example, almost married Stalin’s daughter, Svetlania, who called Beria, ‘Uncle Lara’.  

The oafish Nikita Khrushchev who outwitted Beria to become party leader, but was thought be Stalin to be so dumb as not to present much of a threat to his leadership. Stalin sometimes made him dance for his amusement. Stalin slept little and conducted much of the Party business at all night parties where the Politburo members were forced to attend and drink vodka and other spirits. Some became alcoholic. Stalin held meetings in the darkened  ‘Little Corner’ outside his office where he paced and would dictate policy, head to head, no records. Here he orchestrated search for ‘Rightists’, which led to the purging of the old Bolshevik guard and the Moscow Show Trials. Doctors, Jews, Foreigners, there was always another Rightist around the next corner, ready to be denounced in the Little Corner. Khrushchev was personally responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians.

At the Court of the Red Tsar all members had blood on their hands. And in a note from history the current Tsar, President Vladimir Putin’s grandfather worked as a chef in on of Stalin’s many houses. Before that he’d worked for the Tsar and served Rasputin. He’d served food to Lenin and then Stalin. A former Russian KGB officer is the new Tsar, much like the old Tsar, spreading disinformation and intent on keeping Russia’s place in the sun. Trusting no one is always a good place to begin. Social isolation, monomania, madness. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  The saviour destroys what he tries to save. But he can never be proved wrong. World will tumble before that happens. Stalin died aged 73, his courtiers stood outside, waiting, too scared to intervene, to save him.