These reminders of our mortality come faster the older we get, yet we look forward to them like no other, our heart beating a secret rhythm as they approach, keeping a mental checklist for all who call to wish, and another for those who don't - the ingrates! The nature of birthdays is as a rite of transition, from one year to the next, at certain points, from one phase of life to another, and sometimes, a rite of initiation, and for a few, of departure. Smart as unbirthdays might seem, they never have achieved the acclaim of the one day in a year when all is bright, or dark, as the case may be.
Haruki Murakami, the Japanese baby-boomer novelist whose characters are prone to spend so much time at McDonald's, lighting up Marlboros, listening to Bruce Springsteen records and watching Woody Allen movies and who shares his birthday with Jack London (January 12th), recently edited an anthology of birthday stories for his own delectation, and fortunately, for his readers. He found it a difficult task; he asks in the introduction, "Could there be something innately difficult about using the subject in fiction?"
He also found that most stories about birthdays are, contrary to expectation, dark and cynical. He believes this is because "most novelists are incapable of taking the world at face value," preferring to see the darkness beneath the whoopee cushion, the hot melting wax on a birthday candle, or in the memories of happy days a reflection of others less bright. This is not a book to be given lightly as a birthday present, it carries enough weapons of emotional destruction to shatter the naive, not-yet-cynical heart, and yet, that is the function of art - to break down the barriers and fictive constructs we build to interpret reality, and to show us the holes, and then it is for us to peer through them, or to achieve catharsis, or to go on blindly.
Murakami, who won the 2006 Franz Kafka Award, contributes one story himself to the collection, "Birthday Girl," a tale about a waitress who gets her birthday wish granted on her 20th birthday - a wish that takes a whole lifetime to realize. Life is indeed about living through it, and the birthdays along the way.