Some books leave you with a special feeling. The times when you have given up on your dreams by compromising with the reality, they make you realize that there is still some magic present in our ordinary lives. “Birthday Girl” by Haruki Murakami, is one such book. Published as a short story in 2004, under Murakami’s Birthday Stories collection, this is re-published by Vintage Books as a separate book this year (2019) for celebrating Murakami’s 70th birthday.
About the author
Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto, Japan. Both his parents taught Japanese Literature, but unlike them, Murakami was more influenced by the western culture and he grew up reading American and European writers. When he wrote his first book in 1978, he was running a Jazz bar. His first book, Hear the wind sing, won him New Writer’s award and was published the following year.
After that there was no looking back. Murakami’s most notable works include A wild sheep chase(1982), Norwegian Wood(1987), The Wind-up bird chronicle(1994-95) and Kafka on the shore(2002). Being translated into many languages, his works continue to enchant readers, ensuring Murakami’s place as one of the world’s most acclaimed writers.
This book is of interest for
- Magical Realism lovers.
- Literary fiction readers.
- Murakami fans.
Premise of the book
As the title says, Birthday Girl, but you don’t need any special occasion to read this book, that is the magic of Murakami’s words.
This is a story of a waitress, working in an Italian Restaurant in Tokyo. It was her 20th birthday, and she waited on tables, as usual on that day. She would have got that day off, if her colleague who decided to exchange shift, would not have caught cold. And she was not having any great plans for her birthday, because of an argument she had with her boyfriend few days back, so she didn’t mind working on that day as well. So, it was nothing special for her. This also shows how much our lives are dependent on the people we surround ourselves with.
The owner of the restaurant, lived in the same building on the sixth floor. And it was strictly the duty of the floor manager to deliver dinner to him sharp at eight and bring back the dishes after one hour. Nobody else in the restaurant knew what the owner looked like and nobody bothered to ask as well. Although this daily routine of delivering a fixed dish at a fixed time to a fixed person looked odd to everyone.
On her birthday, the manager’s health deteriorated to the extent that he had to be rushed to the hospital. It was raining that day, so there was not any rush in the restaurant. The absence of the manager didn’t affect the working of the restaurant. The manager told her to deliver the food to the owner. This made her uneasy, but she had to follow his orders.
The owner turns out to be an old skinny man well dressed in a suit. She is surprised by this fact. Just like what we imagine seems so much different from the reality. She follows whatever she is told to do, but the owner is intrigued by her and out of the blue he asks her for a five minute talk. She is surprised by this sudden wish of her boss.
He asks her age, she says Twenty, now. After coming to know about her birthday, the owner is overwhelmed by the kindness of the girl. Because she brought him dinner even on her special day. He wishes her Happy Birthday. As a matter of fact, he is the first person to wish her that day and this gives a strange feeling to her. Impressed by her, he asks her to make a wish, that would be his gift for her. This intangible gift confuses the girl at first. The girl thinks that her boss is playing with her because at twenty, nothing seems like a fairy tale to a person. A person at her place, is well acquainted with the reality of life.
At the end she makes a wish, which is not told in the book but the effect of which is seen at the end of the book. The owner is quite surprised by her wish which comes out to be different from what he expected it to be. He expected her to ask for getting prettier or richer or smarter. To which she says:
” Of course, I’d like to be prettier, smarter or rich. But I really can’t imagine what would happen to me, if any of those things came true. They might be more than I can handle. I still don’t know what life is all about. I don’t know how it works.”
These lines made me contemplate. If somebody asks me today for any wish, what would I wish for? Can we really handle what we wish for? Can we measure our happiness from our desires?
Even though, that day was just an ordinary day for her, but by this encounter, it turned out to be a unique day for her. The manager never got ill after that. This shows, how things unfold a certain way in life. That encounter was just destined to happen.
I read this book thrice and each time, it sucked me deeper into its magic. Unlike the other Murakami’s books that I have read, that made me feel helpless and incomplete in a sad way, the incompleteness of this book made me unusually happy. Even if it’s magical realism, the words resonated deeply with the magical reality of life, that:
” No matter what they wish for, no matter how far they go, people can never be anything but themselves. That’s all.”
The depth of these lines is inexplicable. When the entire world is running after bigger goals and wishing for larger than life things, the truth of these lines is unavoidable. These lines may hit you hard, make you numb for a moment, but the sense of identity it gives to our existence is everlasting.
Murakami’s subtle writing style with the description of food and ambience is totally mesmerizing. Not just the smell of the food but also talking about how the smell of the people reminds us of memories attached to our lives.
Reading ‘Birthday Girl’ was like devouring a sumptuous meal. The taste of which will linger longer in my memory. An unforgettable story, indeed.