Author - Haruki Murakami
Publisher - Penguin, Rs 100
Murakami’s recently re-released Birthday Girl is just the gift that a grown-up would need on his/her next birthday. In its philosophy as well as writing style, it is a rare literary treat, writes UMANG AGGARWAL
There’s almost nothing new about a story that revolves around the idea of the protagonist being granted a fixed number of wishes. Almost inevitably, the story ends with a philosophical lesson that he/ she learns in the process of making the wish. Only an author with (Franz) Kafka-like rare skill and thought to add novelty to this. And that’s exactly what the book being reviewed offers.
Haruki Murakami, a contemporary Japanese author whose works have been widely translated and celebrated, has often been compared with Franz Kafka. Like Kafka’s, Murakami’s characters and stories are set in the world that lies somewhere in the middle of that which seems magical and that which seems eerie. Unlike Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie who create beautiful and strangely believable worlds in the genre of magical realism, Kafka and Murakami retain a sense of enigma in their writings. Their works do not go all the way in making supernatural elements seem ‘normal’. Instead, they thrive on an element of incredulity in the stories that they weave. While Marquez and Rushdie would have you believe that their beautiful worlds exist somewhere, Murakami would almost never give the reader the satisfaction of that kind of finality. A nagging but enchanting loose end would follow the reader and make him/ her come back to the novel in search of any clues that he/ she might have missed earlier.
Thriller, romance, fantasy — Murakami’s works defy the usual genres that literature is classified into. Instead, they criss-cross through so many genres adapting and refashioning elements from each of them that at best one can say that they have a genre of their own. Birthday Girl, the Japanese author’s celebrated short story was re-packaged into a novella and released by Penguin less than a month ago. And, it would be safe to say that it is one of the most rewarding Murakami treats.
The short story turned into a novella revolves around a concept that tends to develop an extra layer of complexity with each passing year — birthdays. Grown-ups can pretend that they are over the childish excitement and anxiety that birthdays bring along with them. But to put it plainly, almost no one ever is. The idea of a fresh start each year is as inviting as the idea of looking back at the previous year is daunting. The girl protagonist in the book who resigns to waiting table even on the eve of her 20th birthday as she was “not going to do anything special anyway”. Just like her, grown-ups often tell themselves to keep their birthdays “ordinary” and eventless. But just like in the book, fate can choose to interfere at almost any point.In the book, the protagonist has an unusual encounter that seems to be destined to happen. People around her fall unexpectedly ill and practically start making way for her to have an experience which cannot help but think back on even years later. The 20th birthday, which the author chooses, carries extra weight in the sense that it officially marks the end of the teen years in a growing adult’s life. It’s a milestone that one can cross only “once” in a lifetime. And the author has some rather insightful take on what one should wish for at that juncture — he/ she should ‘make’ their wish.
“Just one. You can’t change your mind afterwards and take it back.” The beauty of Haruki Murakami’s writing can be discovered and rediscovered by reading this one sentence over and over again. It’s one of the most loaded, deeply meaningful, and deceptively simple sentences that English literature has seen. In the book, on the face of it, the limitation of “just one” is imposed on the number of wishes granted to the unnamed narrator. If one looks at keeping the context of birthdays and birthday wishes in mind, it can even refer to each successive year that an individual is “granted” on his/ her birthday as he/ she gets old. The underlying message here is that with each year coming as an opportunity to “make” our wishes come true, do individuals really need to close their eyes, blow on the birthday candles, and ask for more? That, of course, is just one interpretation. In a larger sense, “just one” can even refer to the number of lives an individual is granted. In that case, the open-handedness of the narrator’s conversation with her unnamed friend becomes all the more poignant. “That’s because you have already made your wish,” the speaker says to the listener when he/ she is unable to come up with one wish that would have been appropriate for his/ her twentieth birthday. In saying that and invoking the idea of “time” playing "an important role,” the story opens itself up to an interpretation where “only one” wish refers to what an individual does with the “only” life that he/ she gets. If you have nothing ‘special’ to do on your next birthday, I would suggest reading or even rereading Murakami’s Birthday Girl. It beckons the reader into a space that is anything but ordinary.