From Complete Stories
Of all the stultifying experiences available to the human race, none may be more painful than the obligatory family party. Certainly there are families who come together enthusiastically from afar because their constituent members genuinely enjoy one another’s company. Then there are the rest. Those who make the trek begrudgingly, forcing smiles onto their pinched faces while making strained small talk with relatives they know less well than they know their co-workers or the barista who serves them coffee. Or, if they do know their extended family members, they don’t much like them. This is one reason family is such a common locus for fiction: it’s generally a very easy place to uncover conflict and discord.
It’s also a wellspring for comedy, especially of the corrosive kind.
The great Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector’s story “Happy Birthday” is about the family party from hell. It centres around Anita, the eighty-nine-year-old “birthday girl.” She is the reason the extended family descends on the household in Copacabana, where the elderly woman lives with her daughter, Zilda. Being the only girl among six children, “it had been decided years ago” that Zilda would be the one to take in and care for the brood’s aging mother. Indeed, during the festivities, Zilda works “like a slave,” without any offer of help from the gathered hordes, “her feet exhausted and her heart in revolt.” No one even mentions her baleful decoration of the single candle adorning the birthday cake – a piece of paper with the number “89” scrawled on it. Zilda “wondered anxiously if they thought she was trying to save candles,” Lispector writes, “nobody recalling that nobody had contributed so much as a box of matches for the party food.”
It is clear right from the opening paragraph that the fete will be anything but joyous. The birthday girl’s daughter-in-law from Olaria shows up without her husband, who absents himself “for obvious reasons: he didn’t want to see his siblings.” The daughter-in-law herself dresses up, in a manner of speaking, wearing a navy blue outfit and “draping that camouflaged her ungirdled belly.” Also present are José, the birthday girl’s second-eldest child (the eldest, Jonga, is dead) and his business partner, Manoel. There’s an unnamed daughter-in-law from Ipanema; Cordélia, the youngest daughter-in-law; and Rodrigo, the birthday girl’s seven-year-old grandson, “the only one who was the flesh of her heart.”
And there is the birthday girl herself: a severe and disdainful matriarch who sits at the head of the table – which becomes increasingly filthy as the story unfolds – holding court with silent judgment and disapproval. Zilda places her in her chair well before their guests are supposed to arrive in order to “move things along” (Zilda not appearing any happier about this gathering than anyone else) and she remains there mostly wordlessly, except to demand a glass of wine.
Lispector makes the birthday girl’s disaffection clear in part through her silence, in part through her placement in the room. She is sat at the head of the dining table, but the rest of the chairs have been pulled out and arranged around the walls of the room, “as at a party where there’s going to be dancing.” There will be no dancing at this party; it becomes quickly apparent that the seating arrangement is intended to keep the various members of the extended family as far removed from one another as possible while still in the same room.
All of this is mordantly humorous, and Lispector wrings every drop of bitter laughter possible out of her situation. As the party progresses and José pulls out every arrow in his quiver of artificial enthusiasm – “Eighty-nine years old!”; “No sir! No shop talk today!” – the reader becomes a fly on the wall eavesdropping on some of the most painfully awkward and forced familial interactions in fiction.
If there were any question in the reader’s mind about the birthday girl’s assessment of the goings-on, they are put to rest in a blitzkrieg of suppressed invective, as Lispector lets us in on the thoughts that are occupying the woman of the hour’s head:
Oh how despicable those failed lives. How?! how could someone as strong as she have given birth to those dimwitted beings, with their slack arms and anxious faces? She, the strong one, who had married at the proper hour and time a good man whom, obediently and independently, she respected; whom she respected and who gave her children and repaid her for giving birth and honoured her recovery time. The trunk was sound. But it had borne these sour and unfortunate fruits, lacking even the capacity for real joy. How could she have given birth to those frivolous, weak, self-indulgent beings? The resentment rumbled in her empty chest. A bunch of communists, that’s what they were; communists.
The woman’s venom, while being acerbically funny, is also understandable, given her position as a matriarch six times over who is reduced to a cramped and circumscribed existence marked only by annual visits from her acrimonious offspring (or their spouses, as the case may be). When the agonizing get-together finally breaks up, the only supportive and falsely optimistic thing José can think of to say is, “See you next year!”