Art of Hearing Heartbeats (Sendker)

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats
Jan-Philipp Sendker, 2012
Other Press
336 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781590514634 

A poignant and inspirational love story set in Burma, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats spans the decades between the 1950s and the present.  When a successful New York lawyer suddenly disappears without a trace, neither his wife nor his daughter Julia has any idea where he might be…until they find a love letter he wrote many years ago, to a Burmese woman they have never heard of.

Intent on solving the mystery and coming to terms with her father’s past, Julia decides to travel to the village where the woman lived. There she uncovers a tale of unimaginable hardship, resilience, and passion that will reaffirm the reader’s belief in the power of love to move mountains. (From the publisher.)

Author Bios
Jan-Philipp Sendker, born in Hamburg in 1960, was the American correspondent for Stern from 1990 to 1995, and its Asian correspondent from 1995 to 1999. In 2000 he published Cracks in the Great Wall, a nonfiction book about China. The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is his first novel. He lives in Berlin with his family. (From the publisher.)

Kevin Wiliarty has a BA in German from Harvard and a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. A native of the United States, he has also lived in Germany and Japan. He is currently an academic technologist at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife and two children. (From the publisher.)

Book Reviews
This tearful, circuitous German bestseller traces the lost romance between a blind young monk and a poor crippled girl in pre-WWII Burma. Sendker employs an elaborate secondhand flashback device to send Julia, an American lawyer, to Burma on a hunch that she might find clues to the whereabouts of her Burmese father, Tin Win, a prominent New York celebrity lawyer who was blind as a child and vanished four years ago, apparently of his own volition. Julia, born to Win and his American wife in 1968, is a New Yorker used to metropolitan conveniences. She arrives in the village of Kalaw by virtue of a beautiful 1955 love letter from her father to a woman named Mi Mi and immediately bristles at the pace and privation of village life. A stranger named U Ba soon helps Julia unravel the mystery of her father, from his astrologically inauspicious birth and abandonment by a superstitious mother to his ensuing blindness and delivery to Buddhist monks who teach him to use his other senses keenly. When Tin Win meets Mi Mi, a kind, crippled creature, she acts as his eyes as he carries her upon his back. Their love remains unbroken through 50 years of incredible vicissitudes. An epic narrative that requires enormous sentimental indulgence and a large box of tissues.
Publishers Weekly

Four years before the start of the novel, Julia Win's father, Tin Win, vanished. After receiving a copy of an old love letter written by him to a woman named Mi Mi, Julia travels to a remote village in Burma to find him. While at a teahouse in Burma, Julia meets U Ba, who claims to know what happened to her father. But the Tin Win of whom U Ba speaks is nothing like the father Julia remembers. She doubts at first that the story is true. But the more she listens and the more time she spends in Burma, the more she believes. Julia is moved by the tragic love story involving Tin Win, a blind boy in rural Burma, and Mi Mi, whose misshapen feet made it impossible for her to walk. Verdict: The heart of this sentimental novel is the romance between the teenagers Tin Win and Mi Mi in pre-World War II Burma. Recommended for readers who enjoy sweetly tragic romances. —Pamela Mann, St. Mary's Coll. of Maryland
Library Journal

German journalist Sendker's first novel, originally published in German in 2002, is a love story set in Burma and imbued with Eastern spirituality and fairy-tale romanticism. Tin Win, a successful Wall Street lawyer originally from Burma, has been missing since his passport was discovered near the Bangkok airport four years ago. After finding an unmailed love letter he wrote to a Burmese woman named Mi Mi, his daughter Julia, also a Manhattan lawyer, goes in search of her father who never told his American Catholic wife or their two children anything about his life before America. In a teahouse in Kalaw, a small town in Burma—the opening pages are a lovely rendering of her sensory overload—Julia encounters a mysterious older man named U Ba who says he has been waiting for her. He also claims to know Tin Win and asks her one question, "Do you believe in love?" Although the novel is ostensibly being narrated by Julia, her encounter with U Ba is really a framing device for him to tell Tin Win's romantic story: After his father dies and his mother deserts him on his sixth birthday, Tin Win is raised lovingly by his widowed aunt Su Kyi, but by ten years old he has gone blind. Su Kyi takes him to the monastery where the saintly abbot teaches him to follow the wisdom of the heart. At 14 he encounters Mi Mi when, with a newly discovered magical skill to hear and interpret heartbeats, he hears her heart beating. He falls in love immediately. Mi Mi was born with mangled feet and cannot walk but is lovely and has a magical gift for healing song. Their love has a purity of trust and oneness that cannot be destroyed. How Tin Win regains his sight and ends up in America is less important than the love he and Mi Mi maintain in mutual silence for 50 years. Fans of Nicholas Sparks and/or Elizabeth Gilbert should eat this up.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. In your opinion, what does the back-and-forth between Julia’s and U Ba’s narratives add to the telling of the love story between Tin Win and Mi Mi? How do these stories interrelate?

2. Tin Win is born to parents who abandon him as a child but Mi Mi is born into a close-knit family. Mi Mi’s mother, especially, adores her daughter. Do you see this developmental difference reflected in the adult each one becomes, or in the way the two relate to one another?

3. After he loses his sight, Tin Win spends several years in a monastery under the tutelage of the abbot, U May. In your opinion, what does U May model for Tin Win? How does Tin Win grow in these years?

4. Tin Win’s wealthy uncle, U Saw, finances Tin Win’s eye operation and subsequent education abroad. But to U Saw’s discredit, his motives are self-interested, and for his own convenience, he obstructs all communication between Tin Win and Mi Mi. Is U Saw portrayed as a villain—or is he even villainous?

5. A portion of the novel is in the form of letters. Does this change the mood or the flow of the novel? The way you see the characters?

6. Tin Win and Mi Mi develop an intense, literally symbiotic relationship: he walks for her; she acts as his eyes. They become inseparable, but then they are separated for decades. Given what you know about each character, how do you think they are able to withstand the time apart?

7. Discuss the role of memory in the novel, both individual and collective.

8. Burma (now known as Myanmar) was occupied by the British from the nineteenth century until 1948. How important is this colonial history to the major events of the novel?

9. Prophecy and superstition play a significant role in Burmese culture. Do you think this belief system inspires a fundamental feeling of security or of anxiety in the main characters of the novel, and why?

10. The novel contrasts Western and Eastern values: individualism and personal achievement versus kinship and transcendence. Where and how are these differences brought to light?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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