The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker, published by Other Press, 2012
Originally written in German and translated into English by Kevin Wiliarty, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is Jan-Phillipp Sendker’s attempt at mythopoeia. Set mostly in Burma, modern day Myanmar, the story revolves around the lives of Tin Win and Mi Mi and their extraordinary love for each other. It is a bildungsroman that traces their lives from their childhood till their death and the many obstacles and hardships that they endure both individually and together throughout their lives.
Sendkar starts the novel on a note of mystery; a Wall Street lawyer suddenly disappears to the utter dismay of his wife and daughter and is untraceable. A few years later the wife discovers a letter addressed to a certain Mi Mi in Kelaw, Burma, following which the daughter decides to investigate into her father’s disappearance. The investigation takes her to the sleepy town of Kelaw where she meets with another mysterious character U Ba with whom she shares the narrative voice in the novel. After this, the tempo of the novel drops and the apparent whydunit eventually reveals itself to be a tale of enduring love.
In some parts Sendker’s ability to depict emotions is both laudable and touching. He is equally brilliant in his depiction of the trials of a blind person, especially someone who had once known the power of sight: “He paced out his pathway, calculating distances and drafting mental maps….It didn’t work…As if someone had rearranged the furniture overnight.” Both Tin Win’s and Mi Mi’s characters have been endowed with a strange vulnerability and pathos.
Skender however has failed to sustain this throughout the novel which is riddled with clichés found in love stories. The hero is blind but brilliant and has the power to hear heartbeat; he could hear the heartbeat of an unborn chick inside an egg. Similarly Mi Mi could roll cheroots that had magical powers. U Shaw, Tin Win’s uncle is the stock villain who separates the lovers and actively tries to disrupt their relationship. Su Kyi becomes that ever-sacrificing mother-figure who disappears from the novel once her job is done and is only declared dead in the end. There is also the stock figure of the monk who at once led a dissipated life and had eventually turned to religion to find solace.
The aficionados of love stories would love The Art of Listening to Heartbeats, especially its ending where Tin Win and Mi Mi embrace, both now in their fifties, and they die together with Mi Mi’s heartbeat echoing in Tin Win’s ears. But others might find the story sentimental and cloying. Besides cutting down on these excesses, Sendker could perhaps have cut down on some of the tedious descriptions.
Sendker has tried to create an equivalent of the famous Romeo and Juliet or Antony-Cleopatra, the love depicted is idealistic and magical and befits the sleepy, fairytale town of Kelaw, far from the humdrum life of New York. With Myanmar in the news for all the wrong reasons, discernable readers might like to concentrate on the depiction of Myanmar and the plight of Burmese living in small towns in the country.
That, at least, is no fiction.
– Shafia Parveen