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Old wine in a vintage bottle

 Nikhil D Thiyyar |  2015-06-07 21:50:22.0  |  0

Old wine in a vintage bottle

The search for the hero’s roots is a fascinating literary journey to say the least. It’s a theme repeated time and time again in literature and motion pictures. Whether it be Superman going on a epic journey to find who his real parents were or whether it be Shahrukh Khan’s character Rahul deciding that his real parents be damned, having Yash Raichand(Amitabh Bachchan) as dad is amazing.

A young woman travels from the metropolis of  New York to Myanmar in search of her father after he had mysteriously vanished four years earlier. 
This story opens in the present day while most of it is a flashback to the 1950’s, and is about a young woman named Julia who goes looking for her father who simply left her mother and disappeared. The father is a successful lawyer and the only clue that is found about where he may be is in a love letter to another woman written years earlier. 

The details read like breadcrumbs leading the way to Myanmar for Julia, who comes across a stranger, U Ba, in a tea house. He mentions he has a story for her. She finds this odd, but she also is intrigued. She returns and soon learns about a man named Tin Win, who is her father with a curious past. U Ba gets Julia to return and tells the tale about how Tin Win’s mother, who was very superstitious, believes the young boy was going to bring bad luck. As it turns out, Tin Win goes blind. As the story unfolds, the protagonist comes to terms with her father’s past and delves into an inquiry about her own identity. 

<g data-gr-id="81">Sendker</g> weaves his tale with a curious blend of investigative journalism and romantic sentimentalism. It is not just a love story, but a fabric of experiences. The title is apt as it explores the sound, touch, and subtle charm of a deep, grounded love story that travels across space and time. Two individuals find love, embrace a life of separation and distance while their feelings soar above all these everyday practicalities of life into an endless inner world of love. The author takes us into an evocative world 
that is magical and deeply sensitive.   

While the first part of The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is engrossing and engaging, the remainder does not quite live up to expectations. The strands of the plot that are unleashed in the first part remain strewn across aimlessly without resolution. 

After telling her that he was leaving for an appointment in Boston, Julia Win’s father boarded a flight to Thailand and disappeared. The Times described him as “an influential Wall Street lawyer” but the police suspect he had a hidden past. Burmese by birth, Tin Win became an American citizen in 1959. Julia, a recent law school graduate, viewed her father as staid, reliable, out-of-date – not the sort of person whose life is filled with mystery or who takes an unannounced trip to Thailand. Four years after his disappearance, Julia finds a letter he wrote to a woman named <g data-gr-id="88">Mi</g> Mi. Julia travels to Kalaw, determined to find <g data-gr-id="87">Mi</g> Mi, the only clue to her father’s past. There she meets U Ba, who has been waiting to tell her the story Tin Win told him, a story from which “a life emerged, revealing its power and its magic.”

Just as we’re settling into Julia’s quest, the story shifts to the one told by U Ba. It starts with <g data-gr-id="73">Mya</g> Mya, a young Burmese woman who regards the birth of Tin Win as a calamity. An astrologer’s prediction that he will lose his sight is soon fulfilled. After his parents die, Tin is taken to a monastery. It is there that he first meets <g data-gr-id="71">Mi Mi</g> – or, more precisely, that he first hears her heartbeat. <g data-gr-id="69">Mi Mi</g> was born with “crippled feet”; their disabilities draw Tin and Mi Mi together.

Hearts and heartbeats are frequent images in the novel. Jan-Philipp <g data-gr-id="83">Sendker</g> also makes good use of the imagery of balance: <g data-gr-id="84"><g data-gr-id="91">Mi</g> Mi</g>, for instance, is emotionally well balanced even though she is incapable of balancing on her misshapen feet. Tin balances his blindness with exceptional hearing. <g data-gr-id="90">Mi Mi</g> and Tin balance each other: when Tin carries Mi Mi on his back, her eyes provide their twinned vision, his feet set them in unitary motion. Julia, despite having all the advantages of a stable, upper-class family and western education, finds that she needs to bring her life into balance: understanding her father becomes a necessary condition of understanding herself.

As related by U Ba, Tin Win’s tale is a love story that too often shares the characteristics of a well written fairy-tale. There are times when the descriptions of <g data-gr-id="96">Mi</g> Mi’s blossoming love are a little too obvious, too melodramatic, too much like Barry Manilow with punchier prose. Moreover, the description of their developing love creates a dull lull in the story arc. After Tin leaves Mi Mi to meet his uncle in Rangoon the novel regains some of its force, particularly after it circles back to Julia and her uncertainty about her father’s love (understandable given his abandonment of her). At that point a different and more original love story emerges, one that addresses a child’s love for a parent. U Ba sums it up: “Love has so many different faces that our imagination is not prepared to see them all.”

As the novel winds down, we learn the rest of Tin’s story. It comes to a predictable finish but (despite its greater length) it seems less important than Julia’s. To the extent that Tin’s story is about the purity of devotion shared by two separated lovers, I tend to agree with one of the characters who observes that love is a form of madness and hopes it isn’t contagious. And as much as I would like to believe in the strength of heart displayed by Tin and (especially) <g data-gr-id="98"><g data-gr-id="100">Mi Mi</g></g>, I found it incongruous that Tin couldn’t give the same unconditional love to his daughter, and I was disappointed that <g data-gr-id="99">Sendker</g> didn’t address that incongruity in greater depth.

It’s difficult to introduce an element of mysticism in a book that isn’t wholly a fantasy. The best writers (Haruki Murakami comes to mind) manage to convince the reader that the mystical is real. That <g data-gr-id="80">Sendker</g> doesn’t quite pull it off is my largest reservation about The Art of Hearing Heartbeats. It’s fine prose and entertaining moments nonetheless make the novel worth reading, and an unanticipated twist at the end pays a rewarding dividend.

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Nikhil D Thiyyar

Nikhil D Thiyyar

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