Jan Phillip Sendker’s “The Art of Hearing Heartbeats”

Reviewed by Malcolm Forbes

Image of Jan Phillip Sendker’s “The Art of Hearing Heartbeats”

This debut novel, originally published in 2002 as Das Herzenhören in Jan-Philipp Sendker’s native Germany, went on to become a national bestseller, and it’s easy to see why. Sendker tells the story of an incorruptible love, forged by two kindred spirits, set against the rustic yet lushly exotic backdrop of Southeast Asia. Other Press has made it available in English, in an expert translation by Kevin Wiliarty.

From its start the tale shimmers with the allure of some “hidden realm,” as Sendker calls it, being freshly brought into view. Julia Win flies from New York to the remote village of Kalaw in Myanmar to track down her father who seemingly abandoned her four years ago and has absconded to Asia. Tin Win rose from his humble Burmese origins to become a top Wall Street lawyer. His successes and commitments have made it all the more baffling that he should disappear without a trace. Julia has a chance encounter in a tea house with an old man called U Ba who claims to be able to give her the answers she needs as long as she’s willing to listen. Sendker’s novel is the framed narrative that results: we read as a rapt Julia becomes engrossed in the story of her father’s tumultuous history in pre-war Burma.

Julia learns of two major events that blight her father’s childhood. First he is cast off by his superstitious mother who, after consulting the local astrologer, believes him to be “a harbinger of calamity.” Next, he loses his sight. Julia muses on that “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.” Blindness changes her father irrevocably. His urgent adaptations to these dual calamities – like his preternaturally improved hearing to compensate for his blindness - anticipate Julia’s own ongoing revisions of the image of her father. This overlap of adaptability, discovery and reformulation may be the book’s principal narrative charm. But it also presents certain problems.

As though bestowing a renewed power of sight, U Ba paints for Julia a hitherto unseen portrait of her father as a young man, which Julia supplements with her own memories. As a child she discovers a picture of Gandhi and marvels at the resemblance to her father. His voice “sounds like a musical instrument, a violin, a harp.” Worse, after a childhood accident his voice “settled gently on my wounds, covering and stanching them.” A doting daughter should conjure up a hallowed image of her father, but Sendker, in trying to salvage Tin Win in his daughter’s longing memory, elevates the man to deity status and thus strips him of his believability.

Later, at the crux of the novel, is the love between Tin Win and his childhood sweetheart Mi Mi, its fervour undiminished over decades of separation. The pull is so strong that eventually Tin Win had no option but to abandon his life and family in New York and fly home to reclaim her. But Sendker’s love-conquers-all message is sure to divide readers. At one point Julia dismisses the tale as “‘sappy nonsense’,” and it is hard to disagree. Sendker has written himself into a corner: he has to make this love so all-consuming as to destabilize the normally cool-headed Tin Win, but do we believe this Gandhi-like figure would succumb to selfishness and desert the daughter he loves with such all-or-nothing finality?

Our credulity is likewise strained with Tin Win’s talents. He can hear the heartbeats of an unhatched chick, and when encountering people it takes him a moment to understand what they are saying – “As always with strangers, he had listened first to their hearts and their voices rather than to their words.” Were the novel a Burmese fable or an attempt at magic realism we might happily suspend disbelief. But Sendker’s story is ostensibly one steeped in conventional realism, and this trope feels indulgent and ill-considered, jarring rather than charming us with its unlikeliness. Presumably this exaggerated flourish is an attempt to juxtapose Tin Win’s two lives – his loveless existence in the reality-grounded West versus his passion-filled memories of the otherworldly East. Even as a deliberately fantastical conceit, this excess tugs too insistently at the novel’s seams. As one dazzling miracle follows another, and the love between Tin Win and Mi Mi grows, Sendker strays perilously close to imitating the cod mysticism and fortune-cookie sentiment of a Paulo Coelho novel.

These infelicities notwithstanding, Sendker is adept at keeping both the reader and Julia on tenterhooks as to whether the lovers will be reunited. We are also riveted when Tin Win’s world is blacked out and, just prior to sailing for America, re-illuminated, as when he undergoes surgery that restores his sight. Sendker has cited Arundhati Roy as an influence, but his Burma, though colorful, lacks the teeming sensory thrill of the India of The God of Small Things. The Art of Hearing Heartbeats could have been a novel that performed linguistic magic with sound, as Patrick Süskind did with scent in Das Parfum, but again Sendker strikes a rather flatter note. Tin Win hears “buzzing and blowing, chirping and cheeping, rushing and rumbling” but it is seldom more excitingly conveyed. The one exception is a short bravura passage in which he listens to a ravenous spider under his bed and “the flies in their death throes, the breaking of their legs, the sucking and chewing sounds of the spider.” We yearn for more gritty interludes like that one.

“If our life as humans shall have meaning, we need to love and need to be loved no matter where we live. That’s what my book is all about.” So Sendker revealed in an interview. It is a pity the love he presents is so unremittingly saccharine. There is a notable section in which we are told “Money and power do not vanquish fear. There is only one force more powerful than fear.” The translation breaks from the original here, however; in the original Sendker felt he had to spell that force out for his reader and ended by invoking “die Liebe.” It would seem Kevin Wiliarty has judiciously trimmed as well as translated, disposing of the glaringly obvious. If only Sendker had reined in more of his excesses – thinning out his cloying emotion, toning those heartbeats down a pitch – then his novel could have convinced.