First, an embarrassing confession. I requested The Artist of Disappearance from Netgalley because I wanted to give the author a second try after having mixed success with The Inheritance of Loss. It wasn’t until I was over halfway through the book that I realized that Anita Desai did not write The Inheritance of Loss. That book is by her daughter, Kiran Desai. I’m glad I made that mistake, though, because Anita Desai’s collection of three short novellas (or long short stories—they’re about 50 pages each) was quite enjoyable.
All three novellas all share an interest in the cultural upheaval that comes with increased interaction with the outside world. In one way or another, all of them deal with the change that comes with such contact and the desire to maintain traditions that are slipping away. They all demonstrate that once you take a thing of beauty out of its natural environment and bring it to a broader audience, some aspect of is bound to get lost, no matter how much you try to preserve its essential quality. Is the loss worth it?
The first, titled “The Museum of Final Journeys,” is narrated by a civil servant looking back on a posting from earlier in his career. His work is boring and unfulfilling, but he’s fascinated by the rumor that one of the crumbling homes in the region contains a museum of treasures from around the world. When he finally is able to visit the home, he learns that these treasures can be more of a burden than a gift. But what can he—and what will he—do about it? The ending, when the narrator encounters the final treasure in the museum and decides what to do about it, is something of a punch in the gut that left me thinking about what this treasure might represent. It just screams, “I am a symbol!” but of what? There are lots of possibilities, and I love that Desai leaves it to readers to work out.
My favorite novella, “Translator Translated” tells of Prema Joshi, a teacher who is thrilled to get the opportunity to translate a favorite novel by Suvarna Devi, a little-known indigenous author, into English. She’s long admired this author and is pleased to be able to introduce her to a wider audience, and she cultivates a vision of herself as a sort of ambassador who takes Devi under her wing and guides her into the wider world. Her vision becomes even more grandiose when she translates Devi’s new book and realizes that with her greater knowledge and skill, she can turn a mediocre work into something better and more appealing to a sophisticated audience:
A faithful translation would clearly make for a flat, boring read. I saw that what was needed was for me to be inventive, take things into my own hands and create a style for the book. So, instead of a literal translation, I decided to take liberties with the text—to begin with, Suvarna Devi’s modest syntax. And once I did that, I began to enjoy myself. What a difference it made when I turned “red” to “crimson”, “anger” to rage”. My pen began to fly. Using Suvarna Devi’s text as a basis on which to build, I found I could touch it with small brush strokes of colour and variation. Wasn’t this what the Impressionist painters had done in those early adventurous days, breaking up flat surfaces to refract light into many scattered molecules, and so reconstruct the surface and make it stir to life?
I liked how the novella explored the issue of translation, both in terms of language and in terms of the interaction of cultures. And Prema herself is a great character, with her delusions of grandeur and seemingly unstinting belief in herself, no matter what circumstances reveal. The story is funny and thought-provoking. One thing, however, puzzles me about the style: it switches periodically from third person to first person, and I can’t work out why. The third-person narrator seems to have access to Prema’s thoughts, and only Prema’s thoughts. And I didn’t notice any discrepancies between what the narrator said about Prema and what Prema said about herself. I can see that the idea might be that the narrator is “translating” Prema for us, but because the narration is not appreciably different, outside of the switches between first and third person, I’m not sure it works. There might, however, be something I missed.
The title story, “The Artist of Disappearance,” is the longest and most complex. It begins with a description of a hermit named Ravi who lives in the shell of a burned-up house and then goes back in time to tell his backstory. We learn about his love of the forests where he grew up and his discomfort with life in Bombay during “the years that did not belong to his life because they did not belong to the forest and the hills.” When Ravi returns to the hills, a disaster leads him to shun society and spend his time creating a garden that expresses his intimate connection with the land. When a film crew stumbles upon the garden, they attempt to capture it on film, but like Prema in the earlier story, they find that translation is not such a simple thing.
For me, this final story was the least satisfying, possibly because it lacks the punch of the shorter, less ambitious stories. The other novellas focus on a moment or a single incident, but this one tries to examine a whole life. It’s not a bad story at all, and it fits nicely into this collection; it just didn’t affect me the way the others did.
So now that I’ve given Anita Desai a try, I definitely want to read more of her books. Any suggestions on what to try next?