Like the stereotype of a bookish woman, I am extremely near-sighted. Without my contacts even a large human nose and bushy eyebrows blur together into one muddy featureless head. With my contact lenses, the world sharpens into clear shapes, colors and forms, and yet I am often surprised by how unobservant I am. I can rarely remember what people wear, notice a new haircut, or find my way again to an address I’ve traveled to before.
In Jan Philipp Sendker’s fabulous novel, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, true sight comes not from seeing but through hearing. Tin Win is a Burmese boy who goes blind after his mother deserts him. Slowly other perceptions leak into Tin Win’s world. His hearing sharpens to the point where he can recognize a butterfly by the sound of its batting wings and an unborn chick by the beat of a heart. He can know if a person is happy, sad, tired, angry or even dying by the different heartbeats, and he can move through the village by the sounds of the breaths of a horse, a worm gnawing on a wood fence, or a woman chopping ginger in a nearby hut.
As the world comes into a new focus for Tin Win, he meets a young disabled woman, Mi Mi, and falls in love. With her words, Mi Mi helps Tin Win give names to the different sounds that he hears. Crawling about, she explores till she finds the worm that Tin Win heard or the egg in which beats the chick’s little heart. With Mi Mi, Tin Win learns the truth of his teacher’s promise, that nothing is more powerful than love. His blind world, now no longer empty because of his love for Mi Mi and his magical hearing, lights up.
“What is essential is invisible to the eyes,” Tin Win’s teacher tells him. When his uncle takes Tin Win away from his village and pays for surgery to fix his eyes, the young man struggles not to let his eyes come in the way of his hearing. He looks at all the colors, objects, shadows and curves, and they remain a photograph for him, lifeless. He longs to return to his village, to marry Mi Mi, to go back to how his life was before, but fate and his uncle have other plans for him.
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is a love story, a mystery, and a tale of the magic in ordinary things. For Mi Mi and Tin Win their love is a source of inner happiness whether they are together or separated. Carried on the gentle waves of this lovely novel, I could glimpse both the selflessness and the selfishness of their love and the impact it had on the lives around them.
Sight and blindness come in different forms. Seeing eyes do not see everything, but — much though I would wish to have a hearing gift like Tin Win’s — neither does a listening heart. The humanity in this book, the tragedy of decisions made and connections severed and kept, make this novel linger in my mind over two weeks after I finished it.