The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker (2006)

In this lovely, captivating novel, Sendker writes us a story enclosed within another story: bookending the novel is the tale of Julia Win, a New York woman in search of her father who has been missing for more than five years; within her search we learn the life story of Tin Win, a blind boy living in rural Burma in the 1930s, whose life since childhood seemed ill-fated for catastrophe.

Julia, unable to come to terms with her father’s disappearance, travels to the small village of Kalaw in Burma to see if she can either find him or get answers about his disappearance from her family’s life. When she arrives, she is greeted as an old friend by a Burmese man, U Ba, who proceeds — over several days — to tell her the life and love story of Tin Win, a local boy who became a beloved village icon.

Julia is immediately out of her depths, not only in the poor, rural village with ways she struggles to comprehend, but also with U Ba’s familiarity and with his tale of Tin Win, which she refuses to believe is anything but a fairy tale. However, U Ba draws her ever deeper into the story of poor, ill-fated Tin Win for whom the stars seem aligned for a life of misfortune.

His mother Mya Mya “knew that the day, hour, minute of one’s birth can determine the course of one’s life. There were niceties one did well to observe, days on which one ought to remain inactive, rituals one needed to follow in order to avert catastrophes.” When her son Tin Win was born on the wrong day and month, she immediately decided it was predetermined by fate that he would neither have nor bring others good fortune or happiness. She abandons him as a small child, feeling terrified of the ill-will he will bring her. Her abandonment finds him not only alone, poverty-stricken, and at the mercy of an older neighbor; but also stricken suddenly blind.

Slowly though, Tin Win, finds ways to grow and learn despite these setbacks. He learns to navigate town, begins his studies at a monastery, and becomes a successful student. Tin Win is also mentored by a blind monk, U May, who teaches him that he has been given a great gift: to see the world from another angle. “A person’s greatest treasure is the wisdom of his own heart,” he tells Tin Win. Tin Win has been gifted with the ability to see deeper into the essence of the world, not with his eyes, but his heart. U May teaches him that “the true essence of things is invisible to the eye. Our eyes [are] the most deceptive. We believe we see the world around us, yet really it is only the surface that we perceive. Our eyes distract us…they are a hindrance…they [make us] neglect our other senses” and we become unable to follow the “compass of our heart.”

With these lessons, Tin Win finds that the world comes alive once again. Now he hears the trees crying, the ground humming, even the insects moving through the walls, and on the day he meets and falls in love with Mi Mi, he also learns to hear and “read” the heartbeats of others. Learning first by intently studying the sound of his beloved (but unable to walk) Mi Mi’s heart, he soon is able to tell everything there is to know about a person — if they are ill, strong, happy, lying,afraid — by the tone and rhythm of their heartbeat. Together, they become two parts of one person: Mi Mi gives him sight by detailing the world around them and Tin Win carries her about the city and gives her the ability to listen to the earth and its inhabitants with her mind and her heart.

Between them grows a love that neither will ever forget or let go of, even in the face of a forced separation that spans many decades. Theirs is a love so strong, so pure, and so enduring that it becomes a legend to the people of the village. Hearing their tale, Julia comes to realize that Tin Win is, of course, her father and this is his life before coming to American that she is learning about for the first time. At first she is in denial; then she feels shocked to learn of these events from a stranger; but finally she too is overcome with the passion and depth of her father’s love with Mi Mi. Learning his story she reaches the closure she has traveled so far to find.

While the book is a wonderful and culturally rich love story, on a deeper level it is also a story of East meets West. In many ways, Julia’s story is one of Western, urban beliefs and expectations while that of Tin Win and Mi Mi is one of rural, Eastern traditions. Slowly, through the tales of all of the characters, we see emerge two distinctly different ways of viewing the enormous life altering events of love, separation, grief, and death.

The Burmese characters are all quite content with the knowledge that “life is a gift full of riddles in which suffering and happiness are inextricably intertwined and any attempt to have a life of one without the other was bound to fail”  As the monk U May points out, “in every life, without exception, illnesses are unavoidable, that we all age and we cannot elude death. These are the laws and conditions of human existence.” Of course, Julia — and the rest of Sendker’s Western readers — feel quite differently. We have come to expect good fortune, health, and success as our birthright and feel shock when our luck changes.

Also of note is the way that Western love is portrayed as something which consumes lovers, driving them wild with the desire to control, own, or even absorb completely the other person; “an outburst of passion that deludes one into thinking they cannot live without a certain person, that sets them quivering with anxiety at the mere possibility that they might ever lose that person — a feeling that impoverishes rather than enriches because we long to possess what we cannot.”

By contrast, the love that blooms between Tin Win and Mi Mi is selfless and open and expansive. It survives, without contact of any kind, without fear or suspicion for more than fifty years and it remains as strong and whole at the end as it was at the beginning. Their love was simply a fact, something that existed between them despite life’s circumstances.

Finally, the comparison of death between the cultures is quite stark. For Julia, death is something remote which she has no real knowledge of or experience with. Julia expects that grief will be her crippling companion and that the gaping sense of loss she feels will last for many years to come, something that she will have to work very hard to overcome. U Ba, her Burmese companion, sees death completely different. Death is all around the people of Kalaw, it happens to the young and old in equal measure and there the cause of death is hardly ever known or sought out; it is agreed that knowing would not change the circumstances for the bereaved. It is a constant fact of life. Furthermore, the Burmese “do not get over or leave the dead behind but take them with us [forever], and learn to live with them in another form.”

In all, this book was an absolutely lovely story of love, family, loss, and grief that takes us traveling around the world into a small Burmese village that we come to know so well. Sendker embodies the story of the Burmese children, men, and women he writes with greater ease than he is able to embody the woman from New York; when he writes as Julia his prose is uncomfortably stiff and formal. The author’s bio — which highlights his work throughout Asia — might offer clues why he is more comfortable in the voice of the Burmese than the American woman. Nonetheless, this slight awkwardness does not in any way dampen the wonderful story he tells.

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