Some of my work on Updike was discussed on The Dish with Andrew Sullivan.
Some of my work on Ross Macdonald was discussed on Pretty Sinister Books.
Here is my interview with superstar music impresario Wendy Starland.
Here is my interview with Pulitzer Prize nominee Olympia Vernon.
Here is my interview with the editor of Best American Short Stories, Heidi Pitlor.
Here is my interview with acclaimed artist Emil Kazaz.
My musing on John D. Macdonald, Travis McGee, and the chicks was picked up on The Rap Sheet.

A Well-Tempered Heart by Jan-Phillip Sendker

New Release: A Well-Tempered Heart by Jan-Philipp Sendker

Other Press; Paper; $15.95

            Deciding to meet a novel on its own terms is a double edged sword – the reader elects to accept some of the author’s propensities and predilections without question, something he or she might not normally do in the role of critic. You agree to play by rules the novelist has established. This, of course, is very hard to do – if the critic does manage to do it, however, then assessing the novel’s success or failure is relatively easy.  John Updike’s first rule of criticism – “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for failing to achieve what he did not attempt” is very helpful in cases such as these.
 Jan-Philipp Sendker’s followup to his hit of ten years ago, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, requires this approach from its readers.  Indeed, if you come at it any other way the sense of loving possibility, optimism and joy that is its central message is likely to get clouded out.
Julia Win returns to narrate the tale of her second trip to Burma in a story that uses the same techniques – the intermingling of Julia’s first person account, long tales of the past related to her by other characters, and letters – employed in the earlier book. There, the puzzle from the past that  we strove to uncover concerned the question: what was the reason for her father’s sudden abandoning of his family in New York to return to his native Burma after fifty years? Here in this second work we’re trying to solve the mystery: who is the woman behind the voice Julia is mysteriously hearing in her mind, asking her questions like Who are you? and Why are you alone? among others. 
A psychiatrist that Julia’s referred to tries to solve her problem via a prescription.  Julia, doubtful that this is a problem that Western medicine can handle, instead goes to a Buddhist meditation center with her friend Amy.(Amy, by the way, is, from a literary perspective, by far the strongest, most three dimensional character in the book.)  There, an elderly Buddhist monk informs her that the root cause of her problem is that two souls are living in her body -  her own and someone else’s - and that the only way to exorcise the second (the one asking the annoying questions) is to find out who the lady was and how she died.  Desperate for answers, Julia decides to go back to Burma to try and find some. Once back, she meets up with her half brother U Ba, who played such an important part in the earlier novel, and seeks his help. In short order the odyssey of a Burmese woman, Nu Nu, and her sons, and war, takes over and gradually intertwines with Julia’s own life and eventually teaches her the meaning of true love and other important lessons.
One of the central and constant themes of both this novel and its predecessor are the differences between Eastern and Western culture, temperament, and metaphysical ideas. The entire mood, tone, and philosophy of the novel are gotten to very quickly - in the very first chapter, in fact. A brief glance at this opening scene will illustrate.
 Julia is seated in an important business meeting (she’s an intellectual property lawyer). Minutes before, she’d opened an unexpected letter from her half brother in Burma, and this immediately causes her mind to wander back in memory, recalling her first visit to that country, her discovery of the existence of U Ba, and his earnest disquisitions about the power of love.  (The all conquering power of love is the ultimate theme of this story, as it was in the earlier one.)  As she sits in the meeting daydreaming, her boss Mulligan is addressing the group of lawyers; he’s described as “droning on” and a moment later as “rattling on”.  Again recalling U Ba’s eloquence about love, Julia thinks “Would I be able to convince a single person in this company that a person can triumph over selfishness?  They would die laughing.”  She thinks of her lawyerly existence as “this world of charges and countercharges”. 
This is a gloomy, dismal picture of life as a lawyer in New York; Julia is clearly not happy.  Evidently she practically lives in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, a war of all against all where life is nasty, brutish and short. Throughout the book Westerners and their ways are made fun of relentlessly, to the point where, around page three hundred, it starts to become a little tiresome and heavy handed, but, in any case, after Chapter One a reader understands immediately that the rest of the book to follow is going to be a tale about how Julia gets away from this existence that she loathes.
As I say, this novel is best accessed on its own turf, and in that regard it’s a deep success.  Sendker bets everything on the power of emotional impact, which, here, is considerable. It’s hard not to be moved by the love story of Julia and Thar Thar.  Their parable contains real and lasting truths about true love. For an appreciative reader, this can overrule things like a plot point blatantly borrowed from an extremely well known novel (and movie) and characters that are more like abstract philosophical principles than actual human beings.   

The next time you see a couple at a party who seem to be soul mates, to use a worn out term, you’ll immediately think back to A Well-Tempered Heart.  There’s a lot to be said for fiction that helps us relate to real life in such a  happy way.

1 comment:

  1. I like the quote from Updike about looking at what the author intended to do before criticizing the work. Sendker's first novel, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, is certainly unusual, and not just because it is set in Burma. It has a deep vein of religious/compassionate/holistic thinking running through it. Sounds like this new novel reprises that thought. Nice mix on your part of telling us the good with the not-so-successful.