Thursday, March 30, 2017
THE ART OF HEARING HEARTBEATS by Jan-Philipp Sendker
book review, fiction, 2006
Julia Win's father disappeared the day after the family had celebrated her graduation from law school. He had waked her early that next morning to say he was flying to Boston and would be back in two or three days. That was four years ago.
Investigation showed that he had bought a ticket, not to Boston but to Los Angeles and onward to Thailand. Investigation by both the FBI and American embassies in Thailand and in Burma, his country of birth, had no record of his arrival, except his discarded passport.
Now, she finds a package from her mother waiting at her New York apartment. A collection of her father's old letters and papers her mother had found in the attic; her mother didn't need them anymore. Among them, a love letter dated 1955, addressed to “My beloved Mi Mi”, in Kalaw, Shan State, Burma.
Although Julia knew her parents' marriage was lukewarm at best, she had missed her father very much these past four years, and was perplexed at where and why he had gone. This clue was the first that offered a way to find out. She had never been to Burma, but she went now.
Kalaw is a medium-sized town near the end of a branch railroad line, and shares an airstrip with a larger town of Taunggyi; both are vacation spots for people to escape the tropical heat of cities down on the plains. Julia finds herself in a small, squalid tea-house under the scrutiny of townspeople curious about why this foreigner has come. All except one elderly man who has watched her since she entered.
He politely introduces himself, U Ba, addresses her by name, and says he has been waiting for her arrival for four years. Yes, he has known her father, almost since birth. He can help her find him, “but first I must ask you a question: Julia, do you believe in love?”
Julia shakes her head, her lawyer's mind wondering what kind of scam is coming . But U Ba continues, “Your father's words were, 'I am not a religious man, and love, U Ba, is the only force I truly believe in.'” He got up and left, after suggesting they meet again the next day.
She got up to pay her bill. The waiter did not want her money. “U Ba's friends are our guests,” he said, and left her tip on the table.
U Ba returned next day to tell her about Tin Win (her father's Burmese name). His mother's little brother had drowned while she was watching him. She never got over her sense of guilt and worthlessness. She married Khin Maung, a kind man and a good worker, but a man of few words. Two weeks after Tin Win's birth half of the chickens got sick and died. It was custom to consult the local astrologer to find out whether the child's birth was the cause. The astrologer said the child would bring great sorrow. Something in his head. He also foresaw great talent in the child, but the stunned parents were no longer listening. They accepted the prophesy as inevitable and never expressed much love for their son. Especially after the father died in an accident, the mother distanced herself from her son.
When Tin Win was eight, she packed her few belongings and left, telling him she would be back “soon.” He sat on a tree stump and waited, refusing all food a neighbor brought him. On the fourth day, he sipped some water. And waited. On the sixth day his eyesight began to blur. On the seventh, the neighbor thought he had died. She took him into her home and gradually she became Tin Win's first ally. But he was now blind, distinguishing only light and darkness.
He compensated by developing his hearing and his touch. He knew every obstacle in his daily path. He could hear the heartbeats of those around him, and could tell much about their owners' mood and personality. He did well in the village monastery's school, One day he was waiting at school for his neighbor to return from the market, he heard the soft steady beating of a heart he didn't recognize; he took a few steps forward, heard it louder. “Is someone there?” he whispered.
“Yes. Right at your feet.” It was a girl's voice. “You're about to trip over me.”
“Who are you? What's your name?”
Thus began a lasting friendship. She was a cripple from birth, unable to stand or walk. Her brothers or mother would carry her on their backs. Tin Win learned to do the same, and she would guide him where to go. He was her feet; she was his eyes, as she rode on his back. They went everywhere together.
Julia had never known her successful American attorney father had been blind in his youth. “When are you going to let me see him?” she asked U Ba.
“You are not yet ready,” he told her. First she must know how Tin Win had had an obligation to fulfill. At age eighteen,Tin Win was summoned to Rangoon, the capital city, by an uncle he had never met. To a Burmese Buddhist, such a summons by an aged head of family must be obeyed. He went with the two men his uncle had sent, expecting to return in a few days. But it was fifty years before he saw his loved one again. Tin Win's story is a poignant but serious examination of the many aspects of human love.
Note to my new subscribers: I do not sell books, except the few I have authored. I review others to improve my writing skill, but do not want to spoil the ending for my readers. You can find most of the books in your local library, or favorite bookstore, or online. I welcome discussion and questions, but am still learning the basics of operating this gadget, and communicate best through email.