The Artist of Disappearance
Anita Desai --- the Indian-born novelist whose previous works have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times --- now offers this slim but surprisingly cohesive collection of three novellas, all of which share a strong sense of place and a concern for the convergence of hope and expectation with reality and disappointment.
"The three novellas collected here provide a varied portrayal of contemporary Indian life both urban and rural. But despite their varied focus, they are united by complementary themes and, of course, by Desai's clear, precise and often lovely prose."
In the opening novella, "The Museum of Final Journeys," Desai introduces us to a young man, a budding bureaucrat who imagines that his position as a junior governmental officer will be the first step in an illustrious career. Much to his dismay, however, his posting falls far short of his imagination: "Across the jungle, or the swamp or whatever it was that surrounded this isolated house, pai dogs in hamlets and homesteads scattered far apart echoed the voices in my head, some questioning and plaintive, others fierce and challenging."
The narrator is pulled out of his emotional morass by the promise of a change in scene. A chance glimpsing of a fanciful artifact at a nearby restaurant leads him to a rumor of a privately held museum of sorts, one where he might be able to see more such wonders. When he finally tracks down this collection, however, what he finds again fails to match up with what he has imagined. Desai's precise, evocative descriptions of artifacts and artworks sparkle as much as the objects themselves, and the story's ending will haunt readers much as the narrator himself is haunted by what he has seen.
The second novella, "Translator Translated," depicts Prema, a lonely teacher whose encounter with a glamorous former classmate at a school reunion inspires her to take a chance on a project that comes to consume her entirely: translating into English the work of a little-known author writing in the Indian language Oriya. As Prema is drawn further and further into the project, she is made to confront ethical dilemmas as well as the moral grounds for translation. What's more, she discovers --- in a particularly heartbreaking way --- her own shortcomings and the shortcomings of the world into which she had hoped to find entrée. "We are all in this together, this world of loss and defeat," she reflects. "All of us, every one of us, has had a moment when a window opened, when we caught a glimpse of the open, sunlit world beyond, but all of us…have had that window close and remain closed."
The final novella, and the title story in the collection, concerns the character of Ravi. Raised by parents determined to instill Western values and culture, he attends all the right schools and obtains a thoroughly respectable job, but longs for nothing more than to return to the hills and forests of his home, which he does as soon as his parents pass away. There he seizes for himself a small portion of beauty amid a landscape that is rapidly changing and disappearing. But when an idealistic film crew arrives in his haven, seeking to film the exploitation, he realizes that, for him, the greatest value in the artwork he has created is in its inability to be seen by others.
Here, Desai's strong sense of place is most evident, in wistful but evocative descriptions of a landscape under siege: "Outdoors was freedom. Outdoors was the life to which he chose to belong --- the life of the crickets springing out of the grass, the birds wheeling hundreds of feet below in the valley or soaring upwards above the mountains, and the animals invisible in the undergrowth, giving themselves away by an occasional rustle or eruption of cries or flurried calls; plants following their own green compulsions and purposes, almost imperceptibly, and the rocks and stones, seemingly inert but mysteriously part of the constant change and movement of the earth."
The three novellas collected here provide a varied portrayal of contemporary Indian life both urban and rural. But despite their varied focus, they are united by complementary themes and, of course, by Desai's clear, precise and often lovely prose.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 5, 2012
The Artist of Disappearance
- Publication Date: November 20, 2012
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 176 pages
- Publisher: Mariner Books
- ISBN-10: 0547840128
- ISBN-13: 9780547840123