Book Review: The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Phillipp Sendker

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I started this novel on my flight home from Mexico at the beginning of August, and although I got held up on finishing it, the reading experience was not altered in the slightest. Sendker has written a tale so beautifully unique that I couldn’t help but read 100 pages at a time. He writes of love in a transcendent manner, possibly the truest notions of love I’ve ever encountered. Sendker has been compared to Paulo Coehlo and although he himself has denied these rumors, I couldn’t help but think of The Alchemist while reading this novel. The two have many things in common, but I think what connects them is the idea of destiny, and how tangled relationships and your own identity can become when faced with the life you’re leading vs. the destiny that was meant for you.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is told through Julia’s point of view, the daughter of a man who has recently abandoned her and the rest of her family. A found love note between Tin Win (Julia’s father) and a woman named Mi Mi encourages Julia to discover the truth of where her father has gone and what he’s been doing herself. Julia travels to Kalaw, Mynamar in order to find the woman named Mi Mi and to question her father on why he left. Her plan becomes derailed, however, when she meets a mysterious man named U Ba who seems to know Julia and her father in a very intimate way. This story teller begins offering Julia help via a story- the story of Tin Win the orphaned, blind boy and Mi Mi, the crippled village girl. And as U Ba tells Julia, this is a love story unlike the usual: ‘I am not referring to the feeling that deludes us into thinking we cannot live without a person- a feeling that impoverishes rather than enriches us because we long to possess what we cannot. No. I speak of a love that brings sight to the blind, of a love stronger than fear. I speak of a love that breathes meaning into life. That defies the natural laws of deterioration, that causes us to flourish. I speak of the triumph of the human spirit over selfishness and death.’ This love is spelled out again ‘how dreary life must be for those who need words, who need to touch, see, or hear another person in order to be close. Who need to prove their love, or confirm it to be sure of it.’

In the midst of the story telling, Julia experiences a wide range of emotions: anger that U Ba won’t simply tell her where her father is, resentment for her father leaving without any sort of explanation, sadness at the reality that was her father’s childhood, disappointment that she never got to know the person her father was outside of his identity as a father, and a strange sort of happiness knowing that her father had once lived a life he wanted to actively participate in. U Ba remains a patient man, teaching Julia the importance of patience and story telling, of being quiet and learning to appreciate the small sounds of life, the heart beats we are always too busy to hear.

The mysticism and spirituality in this story pervade every word. It’s lovely and inspiring- a story that truly makes me slow down and to listen. ‘Might there be, parallel to the world of shapes and colors, an entire world of voices and sounds, of noises and tones? A hidden realm of the senses, all around us but usually inaccessible? A world perhaps even more exhilarating and mysterious than the visible world?’ Yes indeed I believe there is. ‘He had savored the first taste of a life so intense that it hurt. Indeed, it was sometimes unbearable.’ I’ve felt this luscious taste before, the sacred closeness to the world and it’s workings, the utter appreciation and connectedness. I love that moment. And both Tin Win and Mi Mi can have these moments without the other; there’s is indeed a beautifully independent love that moves in sync rather than against their selves. And Julia feels this love, knows the depth of its truth. But she still feels abandoned, still feels ashamed of the hurt her father has caused her mother. U Ba attempts to explain this to Julia: ‘Love has so many different faces that our imagination is not prepared to see them all.’ Who are we to say we understand the notions of love? The way it moves, the way it lives? Who are we to quench or to tame it? Isn’t it, after all, transcendent of our actions? If Tin Win would have denied his love for Mi Mi, if he wouldn’t have searched for her near the end of their lives, wouldn’t he still have loved her? Yes. Love is undeniably alive. Despite the denials and the bouts of time, true love always ignites the ashes of our hearts: ‘it was as if every one of her emotions had suddenly exploded, the rage and the fear and the doubt, the longing, the desire. For the duration of a few heartbeats, everyone of the world’s promises was fulfilled, and nothing could contain her.’ Despite it all, true love lives like this. So is it betrayal after all to seek this love out? To love another while your true soul screams at the truth? I don’t know, but I tend to believe U Ba. I want to believe that true love can never die, that it transcends, two smoke pillars rising and converging after all, in the end.

It’s beautiful and comforting, this story on love and on understanding. How exhilarating it is to discover who a person really is, and how fortunate that Julia got to discover this. The end did come abruptly and U Ba’s connection to Julia felt forced and predictable; however, what I focused on was not the end of the plot but rather the guiding light the story gave to me, a new way to think of the true love I’ve lost: ‘I imagine that each one of our kisses has turned into a star. Now from on high they are watching over us. They illuminate my path through the darkness.’ ❤ You live within me, existing still.

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