Saturday, January 13, 2018
A few weeks ago, I wrote here, for the first time, about my birthday. I suppose one of the reasons I’d been thinking about it more than usual was because of the reading I’d been doing. It was reading that had gotten me thinking, not only about my own birthday, but about everyone else’s as well—about what birthdays in general meant, if anything, and about how different people celebrate them, face them, shy away from them, ignore them, or cope with them.
I’ve kind of concluded that, whether we pretend to ignore them or not, if birthdays have any major importance, it is that they are mile-markers, and as such, they qualify as “special days”, days on which we take stock—consciously or subconsciously—of our lives.
Recently, on the long flight to the US from Patagonia, where I make my home, I began reading a rather odd collection of short stories. The anthology was the brainchild of renowned Japanese novelist, short-story writer, essayist and translator Haruki Murakami. He had selected, introduced and contributed to the collection, for which he acted as editor, and which he called—rather unremarkably—Birthday Stories. (Vantage, London, 2006, © 2002 H. Murakami) https://www.amazon.com/Birthday-Stories-Haruki-Murakami/dp/0099481553
If the title was unremarkable, however, the idea behind this 2002 project wasn’t. Murakami started out by considering his own birthday in 1949 (the same year I was born), and how his attitude toward it had changed since the progressive days of a Japan ravaged by war and nuclear holocaust that picked itself up out of the ashes and re-tooled into a major world industrial power within a short couple of decades. He traced the change in his own perceptions from a youth replete with idealism and rock ‘n’ roll to this time in 2002 when he was in his fifties and was no longer especially glad to be marking each new anniversary of his birth.
And yet, he thought, what if, at fifty-two, he’d been told he had only a few months to live, and now he was marking his fifty-third or fifty-fourth birthday? That, he indicated, would definitely be cause for celebration! “For that,” he wrote, “I can see chartering a boat and setting off a massive firework display in the middle of Tokyo Bay.”
By the way, I think I failed to mention that Murakami turned sixty-nine yesterday. But what’s important about this is that in his introduction to the birthday anthology, he mentions that he especially remembers one that provided a kind of minor revelation. He was attempting to ignore it, having gotten up, as usual, at about 5 a.m. to write, and turning on the news as he was making his morning coffee. The newsreader is giving a rundown of some of the day’s events and celebrations: “...the Emperor was going to plant a ceremonial tree, or a large British passenger ship was due to dock in Yokohama, or events would be taking place around the country in honor of this being official chewing gum day...” And finally, the newsreader lists famous people whose birthday fell that day, January 12th, and suddenly he is hearing his own name, “novelist Haruki Murakami,” being read. And this was when he realized that his birthday was no longer “just for him,” that it had become “a public event.”
With this in mind, Murakami pours himself a cup of coffee, carries it to his studio, turns on some music at low volume and, with the Japanese winter darkness still surrounding him outside, sets to work. “The day was just beginning,” he says. “It was a special day in the year, but at the same time, it was an absolutely ordinary day.”
The writer imagined that he might indeed someday have a birthday when he would feel like sailing out into the middle of Tokyo Bay and setting off an armload of fireworks to celebrate. And if that kind of a day ever came, he wouldn’t hesitate to do so. “But today, at least, was not such a day. This year’s birthday was not such a birthday. I would just be sitting at my desk as always, quietly putting in a day’s work.”
As an aside, I recall a personality from my youth who intentionally set out each year to make her birthday a special event. And I remember that, at the time, I thought this was a brilliant idea, since it somehow seemed to renew her zest for life each year. This was in the Buenos Aires of the mid-1970s and the woman in question was a friend of my mother-in-law’s. Her name was Susana and she had been an important political point person at the grass roots neighborhood level for the Peronist movement (also known as Justicialism), surely—and still today—the most important and controversial political movement in the history of Argentina. One that is credited and blamed for every good and bad thing that has happened here in the last seventy-five years...depending on whom you talk to.
And even then, in the nefarious early years of the military regime known as the Proceso, when political activists of just about every color, and especially Peronists, were disappearing left and right or being shot down on the streets, Susana could still fill her house with hard-nosed remnants of the Peronist old guard for her birthday celebration each year. But this was more than a clandestine political get-together. Through my wife’s mother, we had a more intimate insight into this custom and it was clear to me that Susana’s birthday parties were a generous celebration of life with all of her friends, Peronist or not (since my mother-in-law, for instance, could not have been more rabidly anti-Peronist).
As such, there were rituals that went with it. She would re-paint as much as she could afford of the interior if her cozy house that stood at the end of tree-lined Plaza Vélez Sarsfield, next door to the Church of the Candelaria, and every year, like clockwork, she would buy all new linen for her bed and bath and all new lingerie to wear over the course of the following year. When I knew her, she was nearly eighty, but the drive to maintain this tradition, this bit of clear-cut coquettishness and sophistication, was as strong as it had been when she was thirty. Nor would she rest up excessively for the big evening party. At noon she would meet up with some of her most intimate women friends for lunch at a nice restaurant, and in the afternoon, after a brief siesta, there would be tea with her sisters.
For Susana, celebrating “her day” was of paramount importance. It was a way of ending one year on a high note—no matter what other moods the fate of that year had entertained—and of kick-starting the next one, to which she always looked forward with courage and a positive attitude. I found her, then, an absolutely admirable person, because she never seemed to treat a single day that she had been given with indifference or disdain. Each and every one was a gift, a “present” (that no past or future could deny her).
Anyway, this idea of birthdays being special—selectively rather than generally—stuck with Haruki Murakami and presented itself with certain ramifications. “Special” could mean a lot of things, as was clear from two stories he’d read about the time the idea of a birthday anthology first hit him. One was Timothy’s Birthday, by William Trevor, and the other one was The Moor by Russell Banks.
Trevor’s story is about a young man struggling with a long-running conflict between the life he wants for himself and the one his parents perceive him to have (despite their vision’s being totally at odds with the protagonist’s reality). The reader is given a glimpse at those conflicting realities (plus a third-party view through the eyes of a friend meeting Timothy’s parents for the first time) at the culminating moment when the young man decides to make a stand and refuses to go to his parents’ place for the rather depressing birthday celebration they’ve prepared for him.
There’s a bitter-sweetness and a heart-wrenching statement on the relativity of time in Banks’s masterfully-written story, The Moor. In it, a late-middle-aged guy out with friends on a snowy evening thinks he sees an elderly woman “giving him the eye” from a table where she appears to be celebrating with people who might be her family.
A regular at this bar, the guy asks the owner who the old lady is and what the occasion is. “The old lady’s eightieth,” the owner tells him. There’s a point at which the guy tells his friends he thinks he knows “the old gal from someplace.” And one of his buddies quips, “Probably an old girlfriend.” At which he laughs sarcastically...but his pal has hit the nail right on the head. And the poignant scenes that follow appeal to the deepest of our youthful memories and emotions.
Murakami also includes a Raymond Carver story in this book: namely, The Bath. It’s the story of a child who falls into a coma on his birthday after being hit by a car. This tragedy is played against the separate and—under the circumstances—surreal perception of a baker who wants to collect his sixteen dollars for the birthday cake that was never picked up and on which he thinks he’s been stiffed. It is a stark portrait of a tragic and sardonic twist of fate as only Carver can paint it.
Contentious baked goods also appear in The Birthday Cake, by Daniel Lyons, in which a bitter, cantankerous old woman refuses to give in to her better instincts and change a sad reality for a single mother and her child, simply by, once in her life, foregoing a set and hollow tradition. And in Lynda Sexon’s Turning, three eccentric elderly ladies tell a four-year-old birthday boy the story of the “Emperor Who Had No Skin” (no clothes, you mean; nope, no skin).
If you’ve ever been a pubescent boy, you’ll identify with David Foster Wallace’s story, Forever Overhead. It’s your thirteenth birthday, you have “seven crunchy black animal hairs” in your left armpit and twelve in your right, you’re having a party tonight, and you’re spending the afternoon at the pool. And despite the fact that your family has insisted on tagging along and making a day of it, you can’t help but notice that the poolside is replete with “girl-women...curved like instruments or fruit, skin burnished brown-bright, suit tops held by delicate knots of fragile colored string against the pull of mysterious weights, suit bottoms riding low over the gentle juts of hips totally unlike your own...”
The recently deceased Denis Johnson also puts in an appearance from beyond the grave in this anthology, with Dundun, yet another powerful and senselessly violent image of the mean-streets world he seemed to know so well. In this case, it’s Dundun’s birthday and he’s celebrating by getting stoned on his birthday present (some gifted opium) and, sort of accidently-on-purpose in a drug-laced haze, shooting one of his erstwhile buds—who’s sitting around dying while the relative merits of taking him to a hospital are being slow-motion weighed.
In Angel of Mercy, Angel of Wrath, Ethan Canin weaves a strange tale of a woman who ends up celebrating her birthday with a lady from the SPCA and a flock of rare blackbirds that fly into her apartment through an open window. And Andrea Lee tells a sexually sophisticated story in The Birthday Present of an American expat living in Italy who decides to fully embrace the idea of “when in Rome...” and give her aging, older husband a date with two high-society call girls for his birthday—with detailed insight into the workings of both her dichotomous inner feelings and of the foreign environment in which she has chosen to live. A similar story but in reverse is A Game of Dice, by Paul Theroux, in which a gambler gives his wife a buff young surfer for her fortieth birthday.
In her simple, cogent style, Claire Keegan shares an introspective birthday moment in the life of a nineteen-year-old boy who decides to take a nocturnal dip in the ocean to celebrate his day. Lewis Robinson’s subjects seem to always have his native Maine as a setting and Ride is no different. It’s the story of a young man, the son of divorced parents, who decides to spend his birthday riding in his truck-driver father's rig. Little does he know that his dad has chosen precisely that day to heist a painting.
And finally, Murakami’s own contribution is called Birthday Girl, and is about a young woman who thinks there’s nothing particularly special about her twentieth birthday and decides to work instead of celebrating, but ends up having one of the strangest and most life-changing moments of her young life.
I can pretty much guarantee that, after reading the Murakami Birthday Stories anthology, you’ll find yourself taking a new look at birthdays and what they mean.
Whether your birthday is today or some other of the ever-special days of the year, I wish you a very happy one, and many more to come. But “happy” like “special” can mean a lot of things and what I wish you more than anything else is that your special day should be memorable, somehow extraordinary, a day to make you realize that no two days are ever really alike, that every day is a new beginning, that every day that you are alive is truly special, a “present”, because the future only exits in our imaginations.