The Art of Hearing Heartbeats

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is Jan-Philipp Sendker’s first novel. It has a fairy tale feel and is set in Burma.

This book is a lovely telling of a woman overcoming her sense of resentment and betrayal through hearing the story of her lost father. The story-telling helps Julia and the reader see life in a different way, as Tin Win (with the help of Mi Mi and U May) makes sense of his blindness through his sense of hearing.

Mi Mi can’t walk, Tin Win can’t see – together they make the perfect couple (is it an unconscious retelling of the Genesis creation story against the background of a Burmese village?)

It is a book about seeing. U May (blind Buddhist monk), speaking to Tin Win: “It’s true, I lost my eyesight many years ago. But that doesn’t mean I’m blind … the true essence of things is invisible to the eyes. Our sensory organs love to lead us astray, and eyes are the most deceptive of all. We rely too heavily upon them. We believe that we see the world around us, and yet it is only the surface that we perceive. We must learn to divine the true nature of things, their substance, and the eyes are rather a hindrance than a help in that regard. They distract us. We love to be dazzled.”

“A person who relies too heavily on his eyes neglects the other senses – and I mean more than his hearing or sense of smell. I’m talking about the organ within us for which we have no name, let us call it the compass of the heart… A person without eyes must be aware. It sounds easier than it is. You must attend to every movement and every breath. As soon as I become careless or let my mind wander, my senses lead me astray. They play tricks on me like ill-mannered children looking for attention.”

It is a book that collapses distance and challenges the perceptions of the all-seeing, all-dancing world. “There were things a person who walked through the world on two sound feet simply couldn’t understand. They believed that people saw with their eyes. That footsteps overcame distances.”

It is a book about fear (or rather, the absence of fear). Rage muddles the senses. U May, speaking to Tin Win: “Eyes and ears are not the problem, Tin Win. It is rage that blinds and deafens us. Or fear. Envy, mistrust. The world contracts, gets all out of joint when you are angry or afraid.”

It is a book about the power that is stronger than fear and rage, which brings with it the art of hearing heartbeats.

Julia’s father tells her the tale of the prince and princess from two neighbouring and enemy kingdoms. They die on the same day. The prince dies in the mouth of a croc. The princess dies of a broken heart.

“The two kings decided independently not to bury their children but to burn them on the river bank. As chance would have it, the ceremonies fell on the same day, at the same hour. The kings cursed and threatened one another, each blaming the other for the death of his child.

“It was not long before the flames were roaring and the two corpses ablaze. All at once the fires began to smoulder. It was a windless day, and two great, mighty columns of smoke climbed straight to heaven. And suddenly it grew quite still. The fires ceased their crackling, burning on without a sound. The river ceased its chortling and gurgling. Even the kings fell silent.

“Then the animals began to sing … and suddenly … the two columns of smoke drifted slowly towards each other. The louder and clearer the animals’ song, the closer the columns drew, until at last they embraced each other and became one, as only lovers can.”

I love the book. I love the title.