Birthday Girl by Haruki Murakami (a short story translated by Jay Rubin)

 

One rainy Tokyo night, a waitress’s uneventful twentieth birthday takes a strange and fateful turn when she’s asked to deliver dinner to the restaurant’s reclusive owner. Birthday Girl is a beguiling, exquisitely satisfying taste of master storytelling, published to celebrate Murakami’s 70th birthday. (from Penguin)

I cannot stop thinking about Haruki Murakami’s short story, Birthday Girl. 

The setting begins in an Italian restaurant, and then it moves to room 604 of the same building. The room overlooks the steel skeleton of the Tokyo Tower, while outside the wind whips the raindrops which tap unevenly at the windowpane. The waitress who twentieth birthday it is has been asked to bring dinner to the owner of the restaurant, a job usually reserved for the manager who has suddenly been taken ill. After she lays his meal out for him on the plastic laminate coffee table, the owner asks her to stay a moment for he has something to say to her.

‘Happy birthday,” he said. “May you live a rich and fruitful life, and may there be nothing to cast dark shadows on it.”

They clinked glasses.

May there be nothing to cast dark shadows on it: she silently repeated his remark to herself. Why had he chosen such unusual words for her birthday wish?

Perhaps it is because the girl is so young, only twenty; perhaps she can make wishes which will not darken the years ahead of her. Yet, which of us can escape the consequences of our wishes, not having the ability to see what they will bring?

He then makes it clear that he wants to give her a present, although this makes her uncomfortable.

“The kind of ‘present’ I have in mind is not something tangible, not something with a price tag. To put it simply”—he placed his hands on the desk and took one long, slow breath—”what I would like to do for a lovely young fairy such as you is to grant a wish you might have, to make your wish come true. Anything. Anything at all that you wish for—assuming that you do have such a wish.”

This girl has not had anything special happen all day, and no one had even wished her a happy birthday, so she makes a wish. While we are not told what her wish is, we are told that it is not what an ordinary girl might wish for. She did not wish to become prettier or smarter or rich.

Whatever it is that she wished for, she later tells an unnamed narrator that it did, and didn’t, come true. “I still have a lot of living left to do, probably. I haven’t seen how things are going to work out to the end.”

When this narrator asks her if she regrets what she wished for, she replies that she is married now, with two children, an Irish Setter and an Audi with a dented bumper. Is this an answer of a fulfilled wish? It could be. Or, perhaps wishes cannot be fulfilled after all.

“What I’m trying to tell you is this,” she said more softly, scratching an earlobe. It was a beautifully shaped earlobe. “No matter what they wish for, no matter how far they go, people can never be anything but themselves. That’s all.”

So as you can see, this story of merely seven pages has a myriad of meanings. Once again, Murakami leaves us wide open to possibilities. But, I like thinking about the mysterious mood he portrayed, the idea that a fastidious man can grant one wish, and overriding all of that, we can never be anything but ourselves.

Since my birthday is at the end of the month, I had to read his short story, Birthday Girl. (It is available to read online here.)

18 thoughts on “Birthday Girl by Haruki Murakami (a short story translated by Jay Rubin)”

    1. Iliana, I don’t usually choose to read short stories, either, but with my birthday and the challenge coinciding this month, I could not pass this up. I’d love your thoughts if you do read it because I reread it several times before I could write a post.

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    1. Thank you for appreciating my “explorations”, for they are certainly not more than that. It is really hard to say exactly what Murakami means; I can only hope to make my own interpretations given the text he has written. But, it is so fun to wonder, to ponder, to make guesses at what he might mean. Of course, each of us can interpret the story in a personal way, and that is part of what makes reading his work so interesting.

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  1. I remember this one from Murakami’s collection of short stories, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. Such a good short story. Then again, when it comes to Murakami I tend to enjoy whatever he’s written. But I do remember thinking about this one long after I finished reading it – wondering about the wish she made and how at the end of the day, we are who are no matter what we wish for. I just ordered a copy of this story that is being released in celebration of his turning 70 earlier this month. I’m looking forward to rereading it.

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    1. Can you believe I still haven’t read that collection?! What is wrong with me? 🙂 I have come to think that no matter what her wish may have been, and I guess it ultimately matters not or we would have been told, she cannot escape the natural consequences of life. It interests me that Penguin re-published this for Murakami’s 70th; they probably were not too happy I posted a link here to the pdf in Harper’s.

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  2. Thank you for the review and the link. I will read it, sounds amazing. I have only read one book with short stories of Murakami, but loved it.

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    1. It is nice to a condensed version of his writing; there is always enough meat in it to give one something to ponder for a long time. He is a master of the short story, isn’t he? Not to mention a full novel!

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  3. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is one of my all time favorite short story collections. SO many memorable ones. I didn’t remember this one by title, but when you described the story it all came back to me. In fact, I think it was your blog that influenced me to start reading him years ago, so thanks again!

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    1. You, like Nadia above, are the second to point me to Blind Willow, Sleeping Willow (which I even bought in a first edition!). I love that you remembered it clearly upon reading its description. And, Jay, it thrills me that I was a small impetus for you to read Murakami. A greater compliment on this blog I can not imagine. Xo

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    1. The New Yorker has done an excellent job of publishing Haruki Murakami’s short stories, haven’t they? I was actually surprised that when I opened Men Without Women it was actually a compilation of many stories I had already read from the magazine. Which brings me to the fact that their January 28, 2019 edition has a copy of Cream, an older story of Murakami’s. Here is the link: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/01/28/cream

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  4. Thank you for the url to Cream by Haruki Murakami dear Meredith, I receive The New Yorker and will be reading this short story soon. I mistakenly thought your JLC ran 6 month 😞 my bad. I am reading The Ten Loves of Nishino by Hiromi Kawakami. I do not know if it is me, I feel as if I am plodding through this book. It will not be published until June, I would love to hear other reader’s idea on this novel.
    I hope you are spending your Birthday in a warm place 😌 if not, keep warm 💗 xo

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