52 pages 1 hour read

Jan-Philipp Sendker

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2002

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Summary and Study Guide


Originally written in German and published in 2002, Jan-Philipp Sendker’s debut novel, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, was translated into English by Kevin Wiliarty in 2006. An international bestseller, the novel received the Indies Choice Honor Award for Best Fiction Novel in 2013. In response to such acclaim, Sendker penned a sequel, A Well-Tempered Heart, in 2012. The novel is international in scope—being written by a German journalist who lived in upstate New York, detailing events in a mountain village in Burma (modern Myanmar). The story follows Julia Win, a young attorney, who attempts to track down her father, a well-known New York lawyer and Burmese national, who suddenly disappears. The catalyst for her search is the discovery of an old love letter from her father to an unknown woman in Burma. Upon arriving in her father’s birthplace, Julia is astonished to encounter a strange man who has waited four years to share her father’s complete, intriguing story. The novel’s intricate themes make its characterization difficult, though most reviewers describe it as a general fiction novel. Sendker blends themes—including the loss of loved ones, determining one’s fate, and the immutability of true love—through a series of intriguing vignettes that challenge the reader with unaccustomed perceptions.

This guide is based on the Other Press paperback edition (2006).

Plot Summary

In Part 1, Julia Win, an attorney from New York City, travels to Kalaw, Burma (modern Myanmar) to search for her father, Tin Win. Tin is a well-known attorney who abruptly flew to Hong Kong and Bangkok before disappearing four years ago. Julia decides to search for Tin after finding a passionate 40-year-old letter to a woman named Mi Mi in her father’s personal affects. She enters one of the multiple tearooms in Kalaw—only to be approached by a decrepit, older man, U Ba, who calls her by name and reveals that he has been waiting for her. He says he will wait for her in the tearoom the next day to begin telling her the story of her father.

Julia, the first-person narrator of many chapters, is intensely skeptical. She describes her father as a brilliant, reclusive individual with almost superhuman attributes, such as being a perfect judge of character and having photographic memory. She indicates that there was no closeness between her parents. Julia’s mother does not want to know if her search bears any fruit.

The day after her arrival, Julia meets U Ba in the tearoom, where he begins a series of stories. He speaks of Mya Mya, eventually revealed to be Tin’s mother. Mya Mya is a fearful, superstitious individual who cannot bring herself to love Tin because he was born on an unlucky day (a Saturday in December). A series of negative events confirms her fear that Tin will always be a source of suffering. When her husband, Tin’s father, is killed in a freak accident, she abruptly leaves Kalaw, telling Tin to sit on a pine stump until she returns. Su Kyi, a loving, childless widow, comes into Tin’s life to care for him.

Tin is a friendless, isolated child who spends his time in the woods enjoying the natural setting. Gradually, he loses his sight until he is completely blind. Su Kyi takes Tin to a Buddhist monastery in the village. U May, the monk in charge of the monastery, is a benevolent man whom Su Kyi believes can help Tin cope with his despair and blindness.

Having spoken for hours, U Ba says he is going home to rest and will call Julia the next morning. Julia begins to understand that the boy in the story is her father. She remembers her father telling her the Burmese fairytale “The Tale of the Prince, the Princess, and the Crocodile” and trying to decide if the ending was happy or unhappy.

Part 2 begins with Julia feeling refreshed when she wakes. U Ba meets Julia at her hotel and they walk through the village, which she observes to be livelier than she first perceived. They arrive at U Ba’s rustic home. While he makes tea, Julia realizes that there is a giant beehive in the room. U Ba tells her that it is good luck, and that he has learned to live with the bees.

U Ba resumes the story of Tin. Su Kyi takes Tin to the monastery to seek U May’s help. Like Su Kyi and Tin, U May suffered the loss of a loved one. He offers to make Tin a novice at the monastery, teaching him how to cope with his blindness with humility and gratitude.

On his way to the monastery the next morning, Tin hears children singing. He has a revelation, suddenly realizing he can discern sounds as much as a sighted person can differentiate leaves and blades of grass. He forms a bond with U May, who explains the corrosive, deceptive power of fear and rage. The monk tells Tin that only one force in the world can overcome fear, but he must allow it to find him rather than seek it. Growing his abilities, Tin learns at the monastery for four years. He studies philosophy and reads books in braille, exceeding the other novices.

While walking through the monastery one morning, Tin hears an intriguing beat. He moves toward the sound, stopping nearby and asking if someone is there. A young girl his age, Mi Mi, answers him. He asks about the sound, of which she is unaware. Tin realizes he is hearing her heartbeat. When Mi Mi’s family comes for her, she crawls away from Tin on all fours.

Tin develops the ability to hear the faintest sounds, though he often does not know their source. Wanting to use his hearing to rediscover the world around him, Tin walks through the village, frustrated by his inability to grasp the sources of sounds. Mi Mi calls his name, and he sits with her by the roadside. He describes a faint, rhythmic sound which they eventually link to an unhatched chick in the nest above them. Tin asks Mi Mi why she had to climb on his back to see the nest, and she places his hands on her club feet. U Ba recites Mi Mi’s backstory, framing her as a beautiful, gracious child whose singing voice is reputed to bring healing.

Searching for Mi Mi in the crowded village square the next market day, Tin locates her by picking out her heartbeat. Tin carries Mi Mi on his back, and she leads him through the village, telling him what he is hearing along the way. They become fast friends. On one occasion, Mi Mi and her family seem to disappear. Tin withdraws from the world, lying on his sleeping mat without eating or drinking. Mi Mi returns with her family from a funeral. She goes to Tin and sings for him. The two express their mutual affection, pledging to always be present for each other. For the next four years, they are inseparable.

At 18, Tin and Mi Mi express their physical attraction to each other, though the former does not consummate their relationship out of respect. They discuss marriage and decide to discuss the possibility with Mi Mi’s parents.

One evening, Tin returns home to find two strangers sent by his great uncle, U Saw, to bring him to Rangoon where his eyes will be examined by a doctor. Not knowing if or when he will return, Tin runs to Mi Mi’s house and carries her to a secret place, where they say goodbye and make love for the first time.

Julia becomes distraught at Tin and Mi Mi’s separation, weeping uncontrollably. Weary, she falls asleep on U Ba’s sofa and sleeps through the night. The next morning, she hears children singing from a mountain monastery. The beauty of the music makes her feel connected to her father.

Part 3 begins with U Ba leading Julia to the house where her father grew up. She recognizes many of the landmarks from the story—in particular, the pine stump where Tin sat for seven days waiting for his mother to return.

U Ba explains that U Saw summoned Tin to Bangkok on the advice of an astrologer. Tin is miserable in Bangkok despite his opulent surroundings. An eye doctor diagnoses him with childhood cataracts, which are removed in an archaic operation. After days of wearing bandages, Tin’s dressings are removed. He finds light overwhelming.

Tin demonstrates his aptitude for scholarship by catching up to other boarding school students in two years. U Saw recognizes Tin’s abilities and decides to send him to law school in the U.S. so he can become his legal associate. He secretly conceals Mi Mi’s letters to Tin and confiscates Tin’s own, so each believes the other has not initiated contact. In the following years, many suitors seek to court Mi Mi, but she never marries.

Recalling her time with her father in New York, Julia realizes she never felt at home there. She now understands why he returned to Kalaw. U Ba describes Tin’s return and how they spoke in the tearoom, so he would know what to say to Julia upon her own arrival. Tin walked to Mi Mi’s house and found her near death. The next morning, the two lay dead, side by side. The community cremated them on separate funeral pyres, the smoke intertwining in the sky.

The next morning, Julia finds photos left for her at the hotel by U Ba; she finally sees Mi Mi for herself. In each chronological photo, the same young man appears. The final photo reveals the man is U Ba. Julia realizes U Ba is the child of Tin and Mi Mi, her half-brother. She finds him in Mi Mi’s house at the monthly community celebration of the lives of the inseparable lovers.