The Art of Hearing Heart Beats begins, as many such books do, with a missing person, a box of keepsakes and a mysterious letter.
In this case, it’s a father who goes missing – a Burmese-born entertainment lawyer, married for 30 plus years to an American with whom he has two adult children. One day, he tells his wife and daughter, Julia, that he is going to Boston. He never comes back. Later, they discover that he actually went to Thailand, and they haven’t heard anything since.
His wife hands over the box of keepsakes which include a love letter written by her husband to a woman named Mi Mi in Burma, dated 1955, thirteen years before his daughter’s birth. With nothing to go on but an address in Burma, Julia sets out in search of the truth about her father.
In Burma, she happens to meet an astrologer, U Ba, who knows the story behind her father’s disappearance. Thus, the novel becomes a story within a story, a fable-like unfolding of the great love between a blind boy whose hearing becomes so acute that he can hear heart beats at a distance, and a girl with deformed feet whose songs cure eczema and bring good luck. This girl, Mi Mi, would later become a woman so beautiful that “there were men prepared to die in hopes of coming back into the world as one of her animals, a pig, a chicken or a dog.”
Fittingly, in a novel in which senses are so important, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is rich with sensory details – the scent of eucalyptus and jasmine, the buzzing of flies, the beat of monastery drums, the taste of chicken curry and sugarcane juice. Sendker brings Burma alive for readers who have little knowledge of the country (which would include most of us). He also weaves superstitions and folk tales into the story, as Tea Obrecht did in THE TIGER’S WIFE, adding a tinge of magic realism.
I must admit that before I started reading, I thought the German origin of this novel indicated that it would be a difficult read. I was wrong. Sendker himself admits in an interview at the back of the book that he’s not a big fan of German novels, and that he’s more drawn to the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Haruki Murakami. Sendker, it turns out, is a consummate storyteller. His story had me turning the pages rapidly, until the final satisfying end.
If I hadn’t known any better, I would have thought this book was originally written in English by an American woman. The translation is excellent.
This book, already a sensation in Europe, deserves to be read widely. I loved it.