The Art of Hearing Heartbeats
by Jan-Philipp Sendker
This is another Book Club book that I read even though I knew nothing about it. Even after reading it, I’m not sure how to describe it. The Art of Hearing Heartbeats was unlike anything else I’ve read. It was beautiful and moving, but you didn’t get the full picture until the very last page. That being said, the book swept me along and even though I wasn’t sure where I was going, I couldn’t wait to get there. I definitely enjoyed this book, probably in part because it was so different.
Julia is a young law school graduate. The day after her graduation her father disappears without trace. Four years later her mother has found a letter addressed to someone named Mi Mi in Burma and Julia decides to track her down. She flies all the way to Burma where she meets a man named U Ba who knows the story of her father’s childhood and what has happened to him. Spoilers: ever so slowly U Ba relates the story of Julia’s father, Tin Win. He grew up in a small Burmese town and soon became an orphan, left to be raised by a kindly neighbor. Around 8 years old, he mysteriously looses his eyesight and becomes completely blind. While he is engrossed in his own loneliness, he also is coaxed to learn from the monks in town. He soon becomes the top of his class, learning how to read braille and excelling in his studies. Tin Win learns to navigate his world, even in his loneliness. One day he meets a girl named Mi Mi, who has her own handicap. At birth, her feet were misshapen and she has never been able to walk. Mi Mi and Tin Win form a fast friendship, soon becoming inseparable: Tin Win carrying Mi Mi and Mi Mi being Tin Win’s eyes. Tin Win’s hearing expands at this time, allowing him to hear even the heartbeat of the tiniest insect. His hearing is so vivid, it’s how he identifies people, including Mi Mi and how he knows she’s near. Their friendship is steadily moving towards romance and the two of them have never been happier. One day, Tin Win’s uncle sends for him, and Tin Win cannot refuse. He says goodbye to Mi Mi and they sleep together for the first time before he leaves. Once with his uncle, Tin Win is effectively trapped. Hi uncle wants to help him, and he must do what his uncle requests. So, Tin Win has eye surgery and gets his eyesight back, he also attends a prestigious school and rises to the top. Before long he is on his way to New York for a career in law. All this time he and Mi Mi have been writing, but his uncle has confiscated every letter. Tin Win must honor his uncle, so is forced to stay in America, rather than return home to be married off. In America, he marries and has Julia and her brother. He is able to love Mi Mi and stay faithful to her, while faithfully loving his American family. He leaves only when he senses that Mi Mi is dying. He returns to her on her death bed. They have one night together, full of love, and are found dead the next morning. Julia is learning all of this years later and struggles to reconcile her father’s past with everything she new about him, and also struggles to accept that he is actually dead. She is able to come to terms with it and finally puts two and two together and figures out that U Ba is Mi Mi’s son, from the one time she and Tin Win made love. Julia is able to accept everything, and even finds peace in learning her father’s full story. It is a beautiful and moving ending, even though it’s difficult.
There were two paragraphs that moved me. They are a little long, but I’d like to quote them to share and to keep from forgetting. 🙂
Tin Win’s teacher talks to him about fear when he is first at school. “‘Every one of us knows fear,’ he said. ‘So well! It encircles us like flies around ox dung. It puts animals to flight. They bolt and run or fly or swim until they believe themselves safe or until they keel over dead from exhaustion. Humans are no wiser. We see that there is no place on earth where we can hide from fear, yet still be attempt to find one. We strive for wealth and power. We abandon ourselves to the illusion that we are stronger than fear. We try to rule–over our children and our wives, over our neighbors and our friends. Ambition and fear have something in common: neither knows any limits. But with power and wealth it is just as with the opium I sampled more than once in my youth–neither keeps its promises. Opium never brought me eternal happiness. It only demanded more and more of me. Money and power do not vanquish fear. There is only one force more powerful than fear.'”
Later, U Ba talks to Julia about death. She asks him how long it took him to get over his parent’s death. He says, “‘Over it? I’m not sure I would put it that way. When we get over something, we move on, we put it behind us. Do we leave the dead behind or do we take them with us? I think we take them with us. They accompany us. They remain with us, if in another form. We have to learn to live with them and their deaths. In my case that process took a couple of days . . . .Once I understood that I had not lost them I recovered quickly. I think of them every day. I wonder what they would say at a given moment. I ask them for advice, even today, at my age, when it will soon be time to be thinking of my own death.'”
Summing it up: I loved how contemplative this novel was. It was beautiful and thought-provoking. I really enjoyed it and I definitely recommend it.
All the best, Abbey