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The Language of Solitude by Jan-Philipp Sendker

Published by Atria / 37 INK on May 2, 2017

Two intertwined stories are told in The Language of Solitude. One is political and the other is not. Both are romantic but in different ways.

In its setting, mood, and emphasis on romance, The Language of Solitude is similar to Jan-Philipp Sendker’s popular The Art of Hearing Heartbeats. I think the political story in The Lanuage of Solitude is more successful than the straightforward romance in the nonpolitical story. The romance in the political  story struck me as being deeper and more meaningful, and its depiction of oppression and corruption in China stand as a lesson about the need for vigilance in maintaining an open and ethical government in the United States.

As in The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, The Language of Solitude is set in Hong Kong and the main character is an idealized male who suffers deeply yet opens himself to love. Paul Leibovitz lives in relative isolation on the island of Lamma. He lost his son and, at 53, is afraid to father another. Before she boards a ferry to a neighboring island, his current lover, Christine, tells Paul that he is hungry for love. That may be Paul’s defining characteristic, although Sendker makes clear that Paul is also compassionate, sensitive, empathic, perfectly attuned to his lover’s needs and moods, and full of emotional depth (in short, the kind of men who are easier to find in fiction than in the real world).

Paul has learned to distrust the illusion of the future, to be suspicious of happiness, to take nothing for granted. Christine Wu, on the other hand, is a dreamer, a woman who places her trust in fate. Christine wonders if Paul is living on the island of Lamma to place himself in exile, but Paul is remarkably dependent on others for someone who has gone into exile. If he doesn’t hear from Christine for a couple of days, he drives himself mad worrying that their relationship is imperiled. So, Paul is ideal but also annoyingly needy, although some readers may find that neediness appealing if it taken as a sign of his love for Christine.

In fact, the relationship is imperiled because, having received unwelcome news of the future from an astrologer, Christine is afraid of the relationship, for Paul’s sake. To placate Christine, Paul also visits the astrologer, and some of the nonpolitical love story is driven by the astrologer’s forecast of his future.

The political story begins when Christine’s brother, Da Long, after being absent and presumed dead during Christine’s lifetime, suddenly resurfaces with a mysterious request. That situation takes Paul and Christine to mainland China where Christine learns the surprising reason why she was summoned to the place of her birth after so many years.

Da Long’s story, which involves his romance with Min Fang during the Cultural Revolution, is more interesting than that of Paul and Christine, if only because it is steeped in a dramatic history. Paul eventually pursues the cause of Min Fang’s current illness, creating conflict with her son, Xiao Hu, and her daughter, Yin-Yin. The conflict illuminates cultural differences between traditional Chinese (who tend to accept things as fate if they feel powerless to change them) and westerners (who often look for ways to change things they do not want to accept).

“A loving heart never gives up” says a character in The Language of Solitude. The story advances that the theme, as well as the need for, and difficulty of achieving, reconciliation and forgiveness. The political themes have to do with the corruption that follows when a  government and businesses become too chummy, the false reliance on “national security” to cover up wrongdoing, the importance of environmental regulations, and the power of the internet.

I thought some of the romantic scenes involving Paul and Christine were a bit sappy. I recognize that some readers will take that as a warning and others will deem it a reason to read the book.

While the other characters all seem credible, I had trouble accepting Paul as a real person. For someone who has lived in or near China for 30 years, Paul is remarkably ignorant of Mainland China’s repressive politics and corrupt government. Or perhaps he’s unreasonably optimistic, which seems inconsistent with everything we learn about him. Maybe he needs to be ignorant to advance the story, but his naivete is not well explained.

The novel’s ending is a bit forced, perhaps to make it fit within an astrologer’s prediction about Paul’s future in a way that will not displease readers. Of course, people who believe in fortune telling are always forcing random events to fit their interpretations of a prediction, but I think the use of astrology in the novel, no matter how important it is in Chinese culture, could have been handled with more subtlety.

On balance, I liked the political story and the romance involving Da Long and his wife. I was less interested in Paul and his romance with Christine. As always, I admired Sendker’s graceful prose. The Language of Solitude is worth a reader’s time, but like other Sendker novels, only parts of this one left me feeling satisfied.


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