One of my favourite friends told me about ‘The Art of Hearing Heartbeats’ last year. And when I got it as a present sometime back, I was really excited. Now, when German Literature Month arrived, I thought it should be the first book that I should read.
The story told in ‘The Art of Hearing Heartbeats’ is the story of a quest. Julia Win is a successful lawyer. When she graduated from law school her whole family – her father, mother and brother – celebrate it. Then the next day her father says that he is going on a business trip and never comes back. That is the last that Julia sees of him. After being shocked and heartbroken, the family puts their life back together and move on. Or try to. But Julia is not able to forget her father and four years after his disappearance, she goes on a quest in search of him. Julia’s father is of Burmese origin, while her mother is American. No one in the family knows what her father did in the first twenty years of his life before he came to America. Julia thinks of trying to find that out to see if it would help her find her father again. She tracks her father to a small Burmese town called Kalaw. There in a teahouse, she meets an old man called U Ba. U Ba tells her that he knew her father and his story and proceeds to tell Julia about her father’s initial years. What follow next is Julia’s father’s story, her reaction to it, and some surprising revelations in the end. How U Ba knows so much about her and her family is another thing which is revealed in the end.
So, what do I think of the book? The story is a beautiful, touching love story. It is also the story of the quest. What is not to like in that? That is the kind of story that has appealed to us humans for centuries. The story flows smoothly without any unnecessary pauses and there are some real surprises in the end. A couple of them atleast. I could guess one of them. Sendker’s prose is simple and so the pages fly. But also, there are beautiful passages throughout the book – beautiful thoughts which make us re-read those passages again. The depiction of Burmese culture of a particular era is fascinating. I don’t know whether Burma is the same today as it is depicted in the book, but it was an insightful window into a new culture for me. The novel uses a fairytale frame to present the whole story which was quite interesting too. In some ways the whole book was a fairytale too. And, of course, there is a main character called Su Kyi. You would have guessed that, of course, this being a novel about Burma and all.
So, did I like ‘The Art of Hearing Heartbeats’? Yes, I did. I loved the beautiful thoughts in it and the fairytale love story. I will be reading those beautiful passages again. The book also asks some interesting questions – on whether we really know who our parents or partners are and whether we are comfortable in getting acquainted with their pasts. I loved that part of the book. I also think that the book will make a good movie. Hope one of the producers is looking at it.
I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.
And so there must be in life something like a catastrophic turning point, when the world as we know it ceases to exist. A moment that transforms us into a different person from one heartbeat to the next. The moment when a lover confesses that there’s someone else and that he’s leaving. Or the day we bury a father or mother or best friend. Or the moment when the doctor informs us of a malignant brain tumor.
Or are such moments merely the dramatic conclusions of lengthier processes, conclusions we could have foreseen if we had only read other portents rather than disregarding them?
And if these turning points are real, are we aware of them as they happen, or do we recognize the discontinuity only much later, in hindsight?
“It’s odd, Julia, but a confession, a disclosure, is worthless when it comes at the wrong moment. If it’s too early, it overwhelms us. We’re not ready for it and can’t yet appreciate it. If it’s too late, the opportunity is lost. The mistrust and the disappointment are already too great; the door is already closed. In either case, the very thing that ought to foster intimacy just creates distance.”
Tin Win knelt motionless before the old man, listening intently. It was not the words or sentences as such that transfixed him. It was the voice. A gentle and melodic intoning, subtle and well-tempered like the soft ringing of bells of the monastery tower, bells that needed only a breeze to set them ringing. It was a voice that reminded Tin Win of birds at dawn, of Su Kyi’s quiet and even breathing as she lay sleeping next to him. He did not merely hear the voice; he felt it on his skin like two hands. He wanted nothing more than to entrust the weight of his body to that voice. The weight of his soul. Something happened then for the first time that would happen ever more frequently in the future. Tin Win saw the sounds – saw them as smoke rising from a fire into the air and spreading throughout the room, wafting back and forth in gentle waves, moved as if by an unseen hand, curling and dancing and slowly dissipating.
The soft rustling of leaves intermingled with the voices. It was more than a simple rustling, though. Tin Win realized that leaves, like human voices, each had their own characteristic timbre. Just as with colors, there were shades of rustling. He heard thin twigs rubbing together and leaves brushing against one another. He heard individual leaves dropping lightly to the ground in front of him. Even as they drifted through the air, he noticed that no two leaves sounded alike. He heard buzzing and blowing, chirping and cheeping, rushing and rumbling. A daunting realization was creeping up on him. 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 to us? A world perhaps even more exhilarating and mysterious than the visible world?
Have you read ‘The Art of Hearing Heartbeats’? What do you think about it?