Once in a great while a novel magically comes to life, filling your head with photo-like images of the characters and locations, as though the novel were instead a picture book. Exact scenes, dialogues and underlying concepts linger long after the final pages are turned. Suddenly you feel you must visit a particular far-off part of the world–or merely revisit your past; you feel the need to appreciate and reciprocate the love that is in your life; you feel a renewed commitment to becoming your best self (not merely your most successful self) --- all because of a story. The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is undoubtedly one of these magical books. First published in Germany and recently translated to English, international journalist Jan-Philipp Sendker’s first novel has met with such acclaim that I feared disappointment. Not so. It has been ages since I was so enchanted by a book.
Sendker starts his tale with a reserved New York lawyer of Burmese descent, Tin Win, disappearing. Years later, his wife discovers a love letter written to a Burmese woman which she gives to daughter Julia. Leaving her own conventional life of comfort behind, Julia makes the more than 100-hour journey to the mountain village of Kalaw, site of her father’s birth and youth–and hopefully the place where she will find answers, maybe even her father. In her monastic room, she wonders:
And so there must be in life something like a catastrophic turning point, when the world as we know it ceases to exist. A moment that transforms us into a different person from one heartbeat to the next. The moment when a lover confesses that there’s someone else and that he’s leaving. Or the day we bury a father or mother or best friend. Or the moment when the doctor informs us of a malignant brain tumor…
Shockingly coincidental events and the Burmese people’s reliance on astrologers challenge traditional Western thinking while revealing to Julia the difficult life her father led before attending college in America. A kind local named U Ba helps her understand why the Burmese woman from the letter meant so much to her father and why he had made the life decisions he had. Without revealing too much, readers are in for quite a treat of discovery, with tales from Julia’s childhood coming full circle, gaining meaning and proving that, “Not all truths are explicable.”
And if these turning points are real, were we aware of them as they happen, or do we recognize the discontinuity only much later, in hindsight?
These are questions that had never interested me before and to which I had no answers.
Sendker is planning a sequel to The Art of Hearing Heartbeats. He has also been working on a trilogy set in China. Part of me envisions a strikingly beautiful movie adaptation of this novel, but I would not want a single word of this work to be changed in the process.
“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 chamber of our souls?” U Ba prophetically foreshadows the affect of this book in its first pages—and the answer to all of the above is an emphatic “Yes.” In Sendker’s hands, words can indeed sprout wings.