Tuesday, May 22, 2012
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker
The heart of this novel is set in Burma, pre-WWII. The author Sendker was correspondent in America and Asia for Stern, the weekly German news magazine, for some years. This is his first novel. Sendker was successful and very clever in his choice of subject. In making the setting a mountain province of Burma, a country not much opened to the outside and stuck in a pre-WWII lifestyle, things had not changed significantly since the 1950s and if they had, very few English-speaking eyewitnesses would be able to refute it.
In addition, Sendker gave his main character a disability, blindness, which gave Sendker the latitude to describe through the voice of another person what the main character was meant to be seeing. Not only does this help us, but it helps the author, in that readers are a little like a blind men: the author must describe everyday things giving focus to sounds, smells, colors. If the reader has any experience in a Southeast Asian country, the descriptions trigger unforgettable memories.
But Sendker did more than just excel in describing what any reader could see. He delved into the psyche of the Burmese and showed us folk tales, beliefs, habits, and ways of living. A novel is always suspect in what it reveals, but in this case we can understand as outsiders understand, and are given a way into a South Asia culture that is so remote and so different from modern-day Western culture.
All this and I haven’t mentioned the novel is a love story. But not an ordinary love story—it tells of a love that any of us would be happy to call our own. Some reviewers call this a fairy tale, but I would merely say it was an especially daring and insightful attempt to create a plausible story that works on many levels. And so it does.
Special kudos go to Other Press, for republishing this story at this time of the opening of Myanmar to the outside world (2012, originally published 2002), and to Blackstone Audio for making a very good audio version of the title with American-accented Cassandra Campbell. The Americans in the novel were so much less spiritual, likeable, and accepting than the Burmese that one can see the stark contrast in our approaches to the world. Let’s hope these differences do not keep us apart. We’d all do better if we had just a little more influence on one another.
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