In writing his bestselling novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, soon to be made into a Spielberg film, Arthur Golden drew heavily on the memories of one woman. He told David Usborne her story

IF YOU haven't read Memoirs of a Geisha, chances are that you will have friends who have. Ask them which passage is still most vivid in their minds. It may be the scene in which Sayuri, the geisha whose life the book recounts, sells her virginity to the dreadful Dr Crab. Or perhaps it will be a not dissimilar episode close to the end, when she finds herself pinned beneath the drooling hulk of "the Minister", who can't believe his luck.

Quite possibly, though, it will not be anything from the main body of the book - even though Sayuri's narrative covers hundreds of pages - but from the first sentence of the acknowledgements at the back, which begins: "Although the character of Sayuri and her story are completely invented ... " Excuse me? What do you mean, invented?

For some readers, this is the most shocking thing in the book. Even those perfectly aware that they have been reading a novel will experience disappointment at the reminder that the engaging Sayuri is fictional. The story is told as an utterly convincing first-person narrative - from the day Sayuri is first sold to a geisha house in the infamous Gion district of Kyoto when she is just nine, through her apprenticeship and eventual graduation to becoming a geisha herself, and finally her departure into retirement in New York. And there is a "Translator's Note" right at the beginning, signed Jakob Harhuis, Arnold Rusoff Professor of Japanese History at New York University, which explicitly sets up the book as a memoir. In her sunset years and living in the Waldorf in New York, Sayuri has agreed to lay out her life to Harhuis, who captures it all on cassette. (The smarter of us will have seen through the name Harhuis, Dutch for whorehouse.)

But there is a real geisha behind this novel. Fur-ther into the acknowledgements, the author, Arthur Golden, writes, "I am indebted to one individual above all others. Mineko Iwasaki, one of Gion's top geishas in the 1960s and 1970s, opened her Kyoto home to me." Although she was not the model for Sayuri, Mineko provided much of the inspiration for the book. And it is no wonder Golden feels indebted to her. The novel - his first - has earned him worldwide acclaim since its original publication in the United States 12 months ago. It is still on the bestseller lists in Britain. And next spring shooting will begin on a feature film version directed by Steven Spielberg.

Golden told me about Mineko in an interview at his house in Boston. She was once one of Kyoto's wealthiest geishas, with a list of former clients that would read like a Who's Who of the political, corporate and society world of Japan of that era. Now, in her mid-forties, she is retired and lives with her husband, Jin, and a daughter, in a cosy suburb of Kyoto. She has not read the book yet because she is waiting for the Japanese translation, which is due out shortly.

A friend of Golden's grandmother first put him in touch with Mineko in May 1992, when he had already started work on the book. (Golden, by the way, comes from the Ochs-Sulzberger family that for a century has published the New York Times.) He was uncertain what to expect from Mineko, who was already retired. But he none the less flew at once to Kyoto to meet her.

"It turned out that Mineko was really a remarkable treasure trove," says Golden. Over several days, she explained all there was to know about the life of a geisha, walked him around the Gion district and introduced him to others who had inhabited the same strange world. Soon after Golden's visit to Kyoto, Mineko herself came to the United States and spent a week at his home.

It is still not clear to Golden why Mineko was so helpful to him. While there was no shame to what she did while she was in the geisha life - on the contrary, Mineko was arguably the most acclaimed of her entire profession - in retirement, it is a past that carries some stigma.

"I really think she saw me as a struggling young artist and she saw herself as an artist," Golden says. "So that helped."

A sub-culture that is difficult for most western- ers to grasp, the geisha world still exists in Japan. Businessmen, even politicians, can seek out the company of a geisha without fear of social opprobrium. But it is a world that has changed, certainly since the pre- war years when Sayuri worked her trade, and even since the time Mineko was at her zenith.

Like her fictional counterpart in Golden's book, Mineko was sold into a geisha house by her family. Sayuri was nine; Mineko was seven. The house - the okiya - would have been a rigidly hierarchical place, ruled with a fist of iron by a "mother". Girls were bought strictly as a financial investment. The okiya paid for their training in a geisha school, where they would learn their art. There were courses in music, dancing and the etiquette of the tea ceremony. The girls were taught how to reveal exactly the right expanse of wrist while pouring tea. The house would also provide the geisha with her costumes, the beautifully woven silks of their kimonos and obis, the cummerbunds worn round the waist.

A successful geisha had more appointments in a day than she could cope with, and darted from one teahouse and one customer to another. The real money would flow, though, when she was selected by a special patron, known as a danna. "A danna would not only pay his geisha's expenses," explains Golden, "he would tremendously enrich her."

Mineko was as successful as any geisha could be, and her prosperity began with the sale of her mizuage - her virginity. This became one of the few elements of her life that Golden transposed directly on to the story of Sayuri. Mineko's mizuage had sold for a record-breaking amount of money; the record was not broken for many years. It fetched, in fact, a figure roughly equivalent today to half a million pounds. The mizuage of the fictional Sayuri, sold to Dr Crab, also went for a record sum. (Virginity sales have now more or less vanished from the geisha trade. Even the make- up rituals have changed now. The white moon of paste may still be there on a contemporary geisha's face, but only in a subtle shade.)

Mineko's real wealth came from the danna she later attracted. A danna would normally expect favours from his geisha to include sex. But sex was not a part of the day-to-day teahouse entertaining of a geisha. They are not, in that sense, comparable to western prostitutes.

When Mineko retired, her entire okiya closed, because it had depended so heavily on the huge sums of money she had brought in. Its income had been supplemented by the sale of exquisite kimonos, most of which had been worn by Mineko.

Golden is adamant that Mineko and Sayuri are different people. "Mineko would not recognise herself in Sayuri," he says. After all, they occupied different eras. Mineko reigned magnificent in Kyoto in the Sixties and Seventies, whereas Sayuri travelled to Kyoto from the fishing village where she was born in the early Thirties. Mineko was adopted immediately by the "mother" of her okiya, while Sayuri, whose special beauty lay in her clear, grey eyes, lived many years as a maid before graduating as a geisha, her life made a misery by the jealous stratagems of an older geisha in the house, Hatsumomo.

But Mineko's handprint on the book is considerable. In those first days in Kyoto, she put Golden straight on myriad facts about the geisha life. What time does a geisha rise? What does she do in the mornings before leaving for her rounds in the teahouses and at private parties? What did apprentice geishas learn in the geisha schools? Golden had studied Japanese art history at Harvard and then spent 14 months in Japan in the early Eighties, but nothing that he had been able to find to read about geishas came close to giving him the kind of infor-mation supplied by Mineko. She even took him shopping in Kyoto to buy the cosmetics a geisha, especially in Sayuri's era, would have needed to achieve that distinct white-face look with the border of skin around the edge. Golden asked Mineko to help him apply the make-up to himself. "But she made a face and looked askance at me," he says. So back in Boston he locked himself in his bathroom and tried it alone, applying just a small patch to his right cheek.

Finally, Mineko contributed to the book through her personality. "I had no idea what geishas were really like. I kind of thought that they were all eth-ereal creatures who quoted poetry and that they were very remote," says Golden. "What I found, in fact, was that Mineko was very funny, very bawdy and clever and a lot of fun to be with." All those traits found their way into the character of Sayuri.

Golden knows that some readers think that they were duped by the Translator's Note into believing the book was a genuine memoir, because many have written to him saying so. The Note, he says, was primarily a writing device. Golden spent nine years writing the novel, and the first two of three drafts were told in the third person. When, by the third and final draft, he settled on a first-person approach, he had a problem. He was without a detached narrator who could annotate the story and fill in missing pieces of background information.

"If the geisha herself is telling the story, she won't even know what we don't know, so how could she possibly annotate it?" Golden says. By setting the book up as being retold by Sayuri in her dotage, looking back on her life in Japan, Golden solved the problem. And it was important also that her interlocutor, Dr Haarhuis, was a westerner. In this way the story could be told as if for a western audience.

Towards the close of our interview, Golden produces a cardboard carton, a little larger than a shoebox, that is filled with items collected while he researched the book. Most important is a ring folder with 68 pages of notes distilling every detail of a geisha's existence. There is a section on "hairdressing", another on "rituals and suspicions" and another on "kimonos". He even shows off a diagram he scribbled that describes the different types of attire a geisha would wear at different times of the year. The patterns and colours changed with the season and so did the number of layers and the weights of the materials - all details that are woven into the book.

Also in the box are precious souvenirs from Mineko herself. Hidden inside a tiny and neatly folded rectangle of tissue paper is a collection of her calling cards. The cards are all bordered in red and carry different, delicately drawn images depicting the seasons. For autumn there is a card with falling leaves, for spring a picture of cascading cherry blossom. In Japanese characters, they each read, "Mineko, Gion". Such was her fame that no further details were needed. Some have the same in English on the back, for the benefit of the occasional international business executive not practised in Japanese.

Golden retrieves sheets of a notepad on which Mineko, at their first meeting in Kyoto, attempted to draw the floor plan of the geisha house in which she used to live; it is a tangle of partitions and corridors, drawn in smudgy biro. He also has photographs of her. Some are old and fading - pictures of her in make-up and kimonos and pictures with her family.

Then Golden lifts from the box a larger wad of tissue, which in fact is rice paper. About the size of an average envelope, it is a thick packet, folded over and over. The paper is what Mineko and other geishas would conceal in the obis, or cummerbunds, at the back of their costumes, and it was intended for cleaning up after sex. The rice paper found its way into Golden's book, in the passage about Sayuri's unedifying encounter with the Minister. "With his jaw jutted forward, the Minis-ter's lower lip became like a cup in which his saliva began to pool," Sayuri recounts. "When I'd dressed that morning, I'd tucked several sheets of a very absorbent rice paper into the back of my obi. I hadn't expected to need it until afterward, when the Minister would want them for wiping himself off ... now it seemed I would need a sheet much sooner, to wipe my face when his saliva spilled on to me."

This wad of paper testifies to the detail, and the intimacy, of the stories that the geisha Mineko told Arthur Golden. !

'Memoirs of a Geisha' is published by Vintage at pounds 6.99

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