Thursday, April 9, 2015

"The Art of Hearing Heartbeats": A Magical Love Story

Two very distinct parts of me loved Jan-Philipp Sendker's International Best Seller "The Art of Hearing Heartbeats." The first part is my hopeless romantic side - the side of me that persuaded me to marry my high school sweetheart.  The other part is the part that seeks to understand myself and my place in this world based on my heritage and the lives of those who came before me.  These two parts - the heart and the head, collide in Sendker's magical book that takes the reader on a journey into a small mountain village of Kalaw as Julia seeks to understand why her father mysteriously disappeared.

When Julia's mother finds an unsent love letter from her husband to a woman named Mi Mi from Burma four years after his strange disappearance, she gives Julia that letter and tells her if she wants to find out what happened to her father she doesn't want to know what she finds.  She says, "When you get back I won't ask you a thing, and I don't want you to tell me anything, either.  Whatever you find there, it's no longer of any interest to me." Her mother reasons that long before her husband disappeared he had already left if he was even really with her ever.

Despite her mother's own indifference, and her own anxiety over what she might find out about her father, Julia boards a plane and takes the long trip to Burma to the small impoverished mountain village of Kalaw. In her first hours there, she encounters a man named U Ba in a tea house who not only seems to be expecting her, but wants to tell her the story of her father's childhood.  He tells her "I will explain everything in due course, but let me first ask you my question: Do you believe in love?"

Julia at first is incredulous to this overzealous storyteller who weaves a tale of a man who she cannot recognize as the man she called father, but she returns daily to hear more.  Late at night in her hotel bed,  Julia starts to question "What do we know about our parents, and what do they know about us? And if we don't even know the individuals who have accompanied us since birth - we not them and they not us - then what do we know about anyone at all?" It's a powerful line of questioning, and one that many people struggle with as they start to see their parents as people with pasts that are separate from their time raising children.

The true power of this story, though, comes from the touching love story between Tin Win and Mi Mi - the young blind boy who finds strength and companionship from a beautiful little girl who was born with deformed ankles and is unable to walk without assistance.  Together Tin Win and Mi Mi gain almost supernatural powers - Mi Mi's voice is so beautiful and magical that she can cure people of ailments and Tin Win can hear the heartbeats of people and animals.  Their love transcends any type of disability or hardship and has the power to overcome the trials of life and time.

Although this book is a translation (translated by Kevin Wiliarty) and at times feels like it's lacking in the poetic language that it deserves, the story is beautiful enough to carry the reader on the journey to understand how the past influences the present (just like Tin Win carried Mi Mi without any type of struggle).

I didn't openly sob with this book like I do when I read Khaled Hosseini's books, but I felt like Sendker, just like Hosseini transported me to another country and showed me another side to life and culture that I never knew with a touch of melancholy and emotional nostalgia.  The ability to tell a beautiful love story that doesn't feel trite or cliche is a gift and Tin Win and Mi Mi's story will stay with me for a very long time, as will Julia's brave journey to seek the truth about her father. This book speaks to both of the head and the heart, and to me that's what all good stories should do.

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