The Heart Remembers is the final book in Jan-Philipp Sendker’s trilogy that began with The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, and continued with A Well-Tempered Heart. If you haven’t read the first two, don’t let that prevent you from picking up this beautiful novel, a tribute to love and forgiveness. Chances are you may find yourself calling someone to heal a past hurt.
Ko Bo Bo is 12 and lives with his eighty year-old uncle, U Ba, in Kalaw, a small town in Burma. Bo Bo is smart and perceptive, being able to read people’s emotions by staring into their eyes. He speaks English better than his teachers and can’t help himself from correcting them in class, something that often earns him a few slaps with a ruler.
What also sets Bo Bo apart is the large scar he bears on the left side of his face, stretching from the corner of his mouth to his ear. He has no memory of how he got that scar and his uncle is not forthcoming. Bo Bo’s father, Thar Thar, comes to visit Bo Bo once a year and usually stays for several weeks. During that time, U Ba leaves to stay with Bo Bo’s mother, Julia. With his uncle gone, Bo Bo enjoys one-on-one time with his father.
Why does his mother, Julia, never come? And why, Bo Bo wonders, isn’t he allowed to visit her in Yangon? When he was younger, U Ba was able to deflect Bo Bo’s questions. But with Bo Bo becoming mature, U Ba believes he needs to be told more. Over the course of many days, U Ba tells Bo Bo the story of the incredible romance that bloomed between Julia, an American lawyer whose father was from Burma, and Thar Thar, a monk who cared for abandoned children in a monastery.
Parts of the story are wondrous, speaking to how the love between two people from very different backgrounds can still be possible. Other parts of what U Ba confides to Bo Bo are sad, even tragic. But U Ba saves for the end of his recitation how Bo Bo got his scar. That revelation results in the scar nearly taking on a life of its own, delivering pain and hallucinations to Bo Bo. Needing to learn more, Bo Bo leaves his uncle a note and sets out for Yangon to finally see his mother.
The Heart Remembers, translated from German, is set against the backdrop of turmoil in Burma. Before Julia has Bo Bo, she goes back to New York where she abandoned a lucrative career that left her drained and depressed. When she’s there, however, her surroundings seem familiar and comforting and she worries about returning to Burma. Thar Thar, on the other hand, feels out of place in Manhattan. (When he spots an elderly woman with aging hands and a youthful face, he cannot grasp the concept of plastic surgery.)
Sendker, born in Hamburg, was the American correspondent for the German magazine, Stern, from 1990 to 1995, and its Asian correspondent from 1995 to 1999. Spending time abroad, using his observational skills as a reporter to understand other cultures and people, comes through in every page of this novel. Sendker perfectly captures Bo Bo’s life in Kalaw in such vivid detail we can almost hear the street sounds and taste the food. But what really resonates are the small moments that sweetly display the love and respect that exist between Bo Bo and his uncle, between Julia and Thar Thar. Were these characters drawn for people he met along the way? They feel so real, perhaps so.
The Heart Remembers