The day after Julia Win graduates from law school, her father—a highly successful Hollywood lawyer, originally from Burma—disappears. When the police follow Mr Win’s trail, it leads to halfway across the world, to Bangkok, where it goes cold. Mr Win has vanished, and for four years, his family has not the slightest idea of where he is, or even if he is still alive.
Then, Julia’s cold, embittered mother finds an old love letter—written by her husband to a Burmese woman named Mi Mi—tucked away among his things. On the basis of that letter and the address on its envelope, Julia goes to Burma to try and unearth her father’s past. To find him, this man she has known only as a father.
Jan-Philipp Sendker’s superb The Art of Hearing Heartbeats does not begin here, though: it begins in the Burmese village of Kalawa, where Julia is approached by an old man named U Ba, who tells a reluctant—and sceptical—Julia the story of her father. Of Tin Win, who was born in this village, and abandoned by his mother as a child because she thought him inauspicious. U Ba tells of how Tin Win goes blind, and how he enters the local monastery to study. How his hearing, to compensate for his absent eyesight, suddenly becomes so acute that he can even hear heartbeats—the heartbeat, in particular, of the girl Mi Mi, who was born with deformed feet and can never walk, but who sings beautifully, whose beauty grows to be legendary, and who becomes Tin Win’s dearest friend, confidant, and love.
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is not, however, just a somewhat tragic (if one sees it from that perspective) love story. It is a fairy tale, magical in the way it brings together people and separates them, only to bring them together again. That is the story of Tin Win and Mi Mi, and it is, too, the story of Julia and the father she never quite knew. It is several parallel stories played out, subtly and unobtrusively: Julia’s coming to terms with her father’s past (which is, too, her past, even if she does not quite know it); Julia’s memories of her father, of her favourite bedtime story that he told her as a child; and of her return to her father’s roots.
The beauty of this book lies in many things. Its story is simple, beautifully written, evoking two Burmas: a colonial one of the 1940s, and a modern one. The history is there in the details, forming a background, never intruding. The characters, a small and believable number, are well-etched, especially Julia and Tin Win.
Tin Win, indeed, is one of the most memorable protagonists I have encountered in a long time: a gentle, sensitive boy (and man) who does not feel it necessary to either be a martyr, or to fight the world for the person he loves. A man who manages, in his own quiet way, to balance what he wants with what others need from him. A man whose loyalty to his American wife and children does not come in the way of his deep, long-ago love for the girl he knew as a boy. Or vice-versa.
A story, most of all, which goes deep into the heart. Sensitive, evocative, unforgettable.