Monday, April 15, 2013

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker is a love story that takes place in Burma, set partly in 1930s and partly in modern times. Julia Win's father is a lawyer who became an American citizen in 1959. Many decades later, he disappears from his New York home. After finding a clue in an old love letter, Julia decides to go looking for him in the country where he was born.

It's been a long time since I really hated a book, but this is one that I disliked more and more as I got into it. I skimmed through large parts of it rather than giving up entirely because I'm going to hear the author speak at Booktopia in Bellingham in June.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats was translated from German by Kevin Wiliarty. Another translation would not have pleased me any better. It's Sendker's overblown prose style that annoyed me most.

Julia is the only guest at the hotel in the northern town of Kalaw. As she waits for her breakfast -- the waiter "had never heard of cornflakes" -- Julia was uncomfortable in the silent dining room.

"I was not accustomed to this kind of quiet. [...] The place oppressed me. I found it increasingly eerie and wondered if it was possible to turn up the silence in the same way one could turn up the volume. As if in response to my question, the stillness intensified with each passing moment until it hurt my ears and became unbearable."

The way Julia learns about her father's past is through stories told by a stranger she encounters in a tea house in Kalaw. It's a love story that survives a lifetime of separation. For an extra helping of pathos, the young couple are Tin Win, who is newly blind, and Mi Mi, who is crippled and therefore moves about on all fours.

"There was nothing bestial or humiliating in the way she crawled. She wore only the most beautiful self-woven longyis, and although she slid across the filthy floor in them, they were never unpresentable. When she moved, gingerly placing one hand, one knee in front of the other, she radiated such dignity that people at the market would step aside and treat her with great respect."

"Tin Win realized that leaves, like human voices, each had their own characteristic timbre. Just as with colours, 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."

In another passage, "hundreds of blossoms withered at the sound" of cruel laughter.

It's all too sappy for me, unfortunately.

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