The Art of Hearing Heartbeats – Jan-Phillip Sendker (Originally published in German as Das Herzenhoren)
New York: Other Press, 2002.
“Do you believe in love?” the old man asks. “Can words sprout wings? Can they glide like butterflies through the air? Can they captivate us, carry us off into another world? Can they open the last secret chambers of our soul?”
Jan-Phillip Sendker does just that in The Art of Hearing Heartbeats. Part contemporary mystery, part ancient fairy tale, the story weaves together two time periods, two cultures, and two lives lived by the same man – Tin Win, a Wall Street attorney who on the morning of his daughter’s college graduation disappears. “I love you, little one,” he tells her that morning. “Never forget that.” Later that day he flies from New York to Los Angeles, from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, and from Hong Kong to Thailand where his passport is discovered in a ditch.
Four years later, his daughter Julia attempts to solve the mystery of why her father left her and why he never spoke of his boyhood in Burma or Mi Mi, his “beloved.” Julie knows of Mi Mi from a love letter she finds written but never mailed by her father. The letter states how Mi Mi has been with him for each of the five thousand eight hundred and sixty-four days since he last heard the beating of her heart. “When the time comes,” he wrote, “I will return.”
U Ba, the old man now seated across from Julia in a Burmese teahouse, promises to answer her questions about her father and his Mi Mi if only she will listen to his tale, and what a tale it is for the young Tin Win that U Ba describes is nothing like the successful man-about-town that Julia knew. This Tin Win is the cursed orphan of peasants who is cared for by a loving, sympathetic neighbor. As a young man he studies with Buddhist monks where one day he meets Mi Mi. Each is physically challenged and as their friendship grows, so does their love – a love that echoes a fairy tale that Tin Win regularly told Julia as a child – the Tale of the Prince, the Princess, and the Crocodile.
The beauty of the novel is the way Sendker weaves Eastern spirituality with the lush yet impoverished world of Burma, a place that dramatically contrasts with the hurried pace of upscale New York. It’s as if the two exist in parallel worlds – in New York, U Ba observes, people “love to be dazzled” and rely “too heavily on eyes and neglect other senses.” In Burma, people “learn to divine the true nature of things, their substance, and the eyes are rather a hindrance than a help.” Sendker draws together these two worlds and their contrasting priorities to reconcile how a father could leave a child, and in so doing, allow the child to see that there is more to life than is visible.
As Julia undergoes her quest, the reader travels with her not only into an unfamiliar place but also into the soul of the characters, especially the soul of her father who understands the meaning of pure love. In Burma he “possessed all the happiness a person could find. He loved and was loved. Unconditionally.”
My Wine Recommendation
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is a joyous book, a fairy tale for adults that brings a sense of happiness that will stay with you for a long time. In addition to the box of tissues you may need as you read, my wine recommendation is Aythaya White from the Myanmar (Burma) Estate. A lush wine made of 80% Sauvignon Blanc and 20%Chenin Blanc, it has contrasting yet complementary aromas of gooseberries, grapefruit and green apple. Like the story, it delivers a fresh and pleasant after-taste. ($9 when ordered from the estate at http://www.myanmar-vineyard.com.)