The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker

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The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A young american woman travels to Burman in search of her missing father. What she finds is a story of resilience and heartbreak and enduring love. It also shows us the side of Burma that gets lost in the global news bulletins. Not for the action hero types, a MUST for anyone that loves to feel.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: March 2013
Publisher: Polygon An Imprint of Birlinn Limited
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781846972409

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Sendker is German-born (Hamburg 1960) and worked as American correspondent for Stern (1990 to 95) and then as its Asian correspondent from '95 to '99. He now lives in Berlin. This probably gives him enough global insight to write about a US-born high flyer with an Asian heritage heading off to Burma to find out the truth of her father's disappearance. It probably also gives him the language skills to do it in English without recourse to a translator.

I'd be envious if I didn't know that I never had the talent, tenacity or ability to use whatever connections I might stumble across to get there.

I'd be critical if… if the language wasn't perfectly rendered, if the tale weren't quite so bittersweet and yet stripped of the acrid lace of false nostalgia.

What I would be isn't important. What I am is utterly delighted with this book, Sendker's debut work in English.

OK I will admit to the bias that regular readers will recognise: I do have a penchant for stories from the far east: that part of the world I have yet to explore for myself and which I only know from the art and literature and political writing and biography that depicts a tract of the globe as difficult as any other: a place full of glory and beauty and romance and treachery and brutality and corruption. Like the rest of the world, it is, after all, peopled by people.

Julia has travelled to Burma. Off the beaten track to a remote village. In search of her father. One day, four years ago, the successful lawyer left for Boston and simply didn't come home. Eventually, they had assumed him to be dead. Then in clearing out the house they come across a letter. A love letter. Pre-dating their family but echoing down the years all the same. Could he still be in love with this woman? Would she even still be alive?

And, more intriguingly, who was he during the first twenty or so years of his life that he'd never talked about with his American family?

That is the background that finds Julia Win sitting in a tea shop in a very backwater Burmese town and listening to a complete stranger: It took you long enough… he says Julia Win. Born August 29 1968 in New York City. American mother. Burmese father. Your family name is part of my story…I will explain everything…but first let me ask you a question: Do you believe in love?

The gentleman in question is an elderly (by appearances at least, and to an American, Burmese appearances can be deceptive) man. He is clearly local. Known and apparently respected and trusted if first impressions are to be relied on. As a traveller you have nothing else to rely on. Julia is staying in the best (the only?) hotel in town, but is utterly reliant on the locals for getting to understand the place she has come to.

He is U Ba.

Exactly who he is may be deduced during the story and will ultimately be revealed, but his function is ~ I'm not sure how to explain this. He narrates much of the story that is the backbone of the novel, but there is a tradition in the older parts of the world where the narrator is both 'within' and 'without' the story. In some ways it feels like a modern device but it isn't. The true role of the narrator rests on the fact that what he says MUST be believed, because somehow he MUST know the truth of it. In the old tales this varied between him/her having been part to the action to having simply been an observer, but crucially they were there or never more than one step removed. They may have been the sacred recipient of a trusted oath to hold a truth – but never further than first in line of that trust.


That's the word. The narrator knows things that only one with true proximity could know.

U Ba also serves the function of enabling Julia to tell her part of the story. Interestingly, she doesn't tell it to him. She recounts it to herself, in her memories, in her escapes to her hotel room, with the hot air being languidly swirled around the room by an ancient ceiling fan.

If you've never been to the far east, these descriptions of heat and fans and languidity and torpor… they do become clichéd. If you have been. And especially if you have broken all your personal rules about travel and just crashed out in a hotel room in the middle of the afternoon in the bliss of the rotating blades creating a tepid down draught… it suddenly seems like the height of rationality.

For a young lawyer from New York… too true!

For a young female lawyer on a wild goose chase for her missing father on the back of a half-century old love-letter… it's a wonder she didn't flee in terror the moment U Ba spoke her name.

From that first meeting, U Ba patiently waits and slowly explains. Julia tries to resist, but pushed by the good and not-so-good memories of her family life in New York and particularly her personal relationship with her father, finds herself compelled to listen.

U Ba tells a tale of a young Burmese man from a poor family… hardship befalls him and he becomes blind… but he is (in a way, to an extent) rescued. He joins a monastery. He learns about love.

Julia has no way of knowing how this story has anything to do with her father.

But the story has only just begun, and she cannot resist the telling of it.

Under the title on my proof copy it says A Novel. What an understatement. Are we so unwilling these days to say A Love Story? Do we fear that this will reduce our potential market?

Possibly, and more's the pity. For this is a love story. In every sense of that expression.

It is a story that follows the love between two people, but it is also a story about love, about its redemptive power, its creative power, its ability to grant freedom to the person loved and not be diminished. It's about all of those aspects of love that get lost in our modern, grabbing, possessive world.

The fact that along the way it paints a beautiful picture of the best of a rural Burma that we're unfamiliar with and that may have survived the worst of the political mistakes of the country that we do know about adds to the romance of the novel and, if true, can only add hope to the country as it makes its way back into the modern world.

This book isn't for everyone. You have to appreciate gentle story-telling. You have to be able to truly feel love. Yes, I know how sanctimonious that sounds, but many people love, genuinely and to their best intent and extent, without feeling it in a real guttural, heart-wrenching, fundamental-to-their-being way. And many others subside into drama-queen mode and think they're feeling this when, it's really all about them. You have to understand that love isn't about you, it's about them.

If there is a message in this book: that's the one I found.

If you have loved and lost and still love regardless. That's good.

If you haven't, then read it for the romance, the insight into a hidden country, the contrast between the old and new worlds, and their similarities. Read it for the fairy-tale feel of it. Read it for the hidden snippets of oriental wisdom. Read it…

... look, just go read it!

If this book doesn't get some kind of award, there is no justice.

For a less romantic take on the country try Burma Chronicles by Guy Delisle - but for another west-meets-east historical perspective your could also try Dreams of Joy by Lisa See

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