Friday, May 9, 2014

The Birthday Buyer

The Birthday Buyer 
By Adolfo García Ortega
Translated by Peter Bush 
978-84-94174-452
$15.29, 258 pgs

This past January I climbed the stairs beyond the bookcase. It was drizzling that day; Amsterdam brooding magnificently in the chill. I had a 10-hour layover and took the train into the center of the city to visit The Anne Frank House. I was okay until I climbed that staircase. Otto Frank survived the “purifying fire;” he walked out of Auschwitz, the only member of his family to do so. He was in the sick barracks when the Soviets liberated the camp on January 27, 1945. I wonder if he knew Hurbinek.

The Birthday Buyer by Adolfo García Ortega, translated by Peter Bush, is the story of Hurbinek, a little boy who was born and died in Auschwitz. He is malnourished and developmentally stunted to the extent that he cannot speak or walk. Primo Levi wrote of this little one, with whom he shared the sick barracks in 1945, in his book The Truce, “Nothing remains of him; he bears witness through these words of mine.”

The narrator, obsessed with the holocaust and the story of Hurbinek in particular, is on a pilgrimage to Auschwitz when he is involved in a near-fatal auto accident outside Frankfurt. He is laid up in a hospital for a few weeks, despairing that he has failed in his mission to pay homage to Hurbinek. Like Hurbinek, he cannot walk – his knees have been shattered. Drawing parallels between his condition and Hurbinek’s, mindful of Mengele and his compatriots, the narrator attempts to resist paranoia brought on by, among other things, the German accents of his doctors. In this psychological hothouse he chews on the un-life of Hurbinek.

Ortega has attempted to restore the humanity that was stolen from so many by giving identity to this specific anonymity. He tells us, “I’m horrified to think that Hurbinek, with all his strength and desire to live, only experienced a pre-life, only lived a strange extension of his mother’s uterus.” Ortega has given Hurbinek a complete backstory. He has given him parents, Sofia and Yakov Pawlicka of Poland, and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. He has anchored Hurbinek’s existence in history and geography and anthropology. The author imagines several alternative lives for Hurbinek: he became a celebrated set and costume designer for the stage in Moscow; or else a model employee of the Budapest Tram System; or else a writer of award-winning biographies in Spain; or else a seminary student in France who gave up his calling to devote himself to cinema; or else a famous Bulgarian conductor; or else an antiquities appraiser for Sotheby’s; or else an infamous Israeli photographer and satirist; or else a homosexual radio journalist in Greece. These were all full lives that would've restored some beauty to the world. 

Adolfo García Ortega
Whew…difficult, this. Harrowing. In the interests of honesty and full disclosure, I wanted to put this book down and walk away. I wanted to never pick it up again. But I couldn’t. Once begun, I felt it necessary to bear witness, if only in imagination. A duty, if you will. Mercifully, the language is beautiful and the premise intriguing.

Adolfo García Ortega is a translator, literary critic, journalist and former editorial director of the Spanish publishing house Seix Barral. He is currently Associate Publishing Director of the Planeta Publishing Group. His critically acclaimed novels have won numerous prizes.

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