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"I speak of a love that brings sight to the blind...a love stronger than fear...a love that breathes meaning into life."
on 1 February 2012
Setting this novel in Burma, (now Myanmar), Jan-Philipp Sendker pulls out all the stops, telling the consummately romantic story of an abandoned and traumatized orphan boy, Tin Win, who must learn to make connections with the world beyond. Looking back at the past and forward into the future, the novel is also a triumph over adversity, as two characters, one blind and one crippled, movingly overcome their "handicaps," and find happiness within. And it also a novel of suspense, as Julia Win, the young American daughter of her missing Burmese father, Tin Win, travels into this mysterious country, searching for the writer of a love letter from almost fifty years ago. Julia's other-worldly meeting with U ba, a monk in the small town where her father grew up, sets the tone and atmosphere for much of the action.
Time in this novel is not linear, with Julia suddenly remembering and retelling one of her father's stories about prince who befriends a crocodile in the name of love, a story which echoes throughout the novel. Another early diversion from the main story occurs with the story of U May, the abbot of the local monastery, whose own love story parallels in many ways the story which eventually grows up around Tin Win, a story with symbolism (or sense of foreboding) on several levels.
As U ba tells Julia about her father's early life, she learns about Mi Mi, the crippled girl who becomes his love, and the novel becomes almost a morality tale, with many statements about the nature of life and love: "We acknowledge as love primarily those things that correspond to our own image thereof. We wish to be loved as we ourselves would love." A poem by Pablo Neruda asks us, "How much does a man live, after all?/ Does he live a thousand days, or only one?/...What does it mean to say `for ever'?" Another adage asserts that "Life is a gift that none might disdain...Life is a gift full of riddles in which suffering and happiness are inextricably intertwined." Stories within stories within stories keep the love interests swirling and the sense of mystery growing.
Events are described with detail which keeps them fresh, but they are recited at us by a storyteller, primarily U ba, rather than recreated in a way which makes the reader feels s/he is participating in the action directly. This sometimes makes the novel seem "talky" and puts the burden on the reader to imagine it and make it feel lively and personal. All the aphorisms and commentary about life and love sometimes give the novel a moralistic, even ponderous tone, and while this is in keeping with the lessons being given by the monks, many readers prefer to glean the themes for themselves through the action, a more subtle approach to writing. Romantic cliches abound. Still, Sendker's descriptions and his setting in Burma, a country which few readers know, lend a sense of atmosphere and mystery to the novel, and his often lyrical approach to the points of view of Tin Win and Mi Mi creates a charming romance which will keep many readers fascinated. Mary Whipple