Anita Desai, The Artist of Disappearance

At some point (and we all know this point will never come) I want to turn my notes on the second story in this collection into something longer and more coherent. I’m not sure the People-who-speak-English/People-who-speak-Oriya divide works quite as Desai thinks it does, and while she seems to parody the people who ask questions about things like appropriation, I think these are definitely (in rather rough form) questions that need to be asked. But then the story (and the collection) is so focused on the small and the personal that it is probably in its interest to wish that the world didn’t exist.

This isn’t Desai’s best work, but I’m always interested in artists talking (however indirectly) about art.

 

From last weekend’s column.

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A young civil servant, arriving at the site of his new posting during a power cut, experiences his new quarters by lantern-light and reflects that the experience seems unreal. Like “something by Robert Louis Stevenson or Arthur Conan Doyle or Wilkie Collins”. There’s something of the Victorian adventure story about “The Museum of Final Journeys”, the first of the triptych of novellas that make up Anita Desai’s The Artist of Disappearance. Almost on cue a visitor arrives with a mysterious story—of a great family’s dwindling fortune and the mysterious heir who went travelling many years ago and has not been seen since but who would periodically send gifts home. His mother collected these gifts, some of them rich and startling, in a private museum, and our narrator’s petitioner has only come to ask that the museum be preserved.

But this is not a Victorian adventure, and our narrator is not going to throw himself into solving the mystery and finding the missing son. The pieces in the museum may be amazing, and he may be moved and unsettled by them, but he is also an ordinary man in a government job and some things may not be worth the bother. We’re not sure how much this man could do to save the museum; he does nothing, and years later continues to feel uncomfortable about his failure.

The concerns of everyday life come up against something special once again in “The Artist of Disappearance”, the story that gives the collection its title. Ravi is a recluse who lives in the hills, speaking to no one and spending all his time beautifying a secluded garden by use of the natural objects (stones, fallen branches) that he finds there. When a documentary film crew stumbles upon the garden they decide it would provide the perfect counterpoint to their movie about illegal mining destroying the beauty of the local landscape. But Ravi disappears and finds a new form of art to which to devote himself; without an artist the garden ceases to be art, and the film crew, who we know to be capable of being moved by Ravi’s garden, are forced to find another sensation for their film.

With their decaying mansions in the hills, “The Museum of Final Journeys” and “The Artist of Disappearance” seem like companion pieces. The first story gives us Srimati Sarita Devi, waiting for her son to come home and carefully preserving the souvenirs he sends. The second has the child Ravi saying his farewells to his parents before their frequent trips abroad; trips that result in astonishing presents that are, once seen, locked up like museum pieces.

The collection’s central piece, then seems at first a complete misfit. Set mostly in Delhi, “Translator Translated” tells of Prema Joshi, who falls in love with the short stories of the Oriya writer Suvarna Devi, and eventually becomes their translator. But in some ways the art of the translator is in disappearing, and here Prema fails. Unable to translate ethically or to write independently (Suvarna Devi’s style shadows Prema’s original work) she returns to the more mundane world, or so the book would seem to suggest, of academia.

“Translator Translated” is in many ways the weakest of these stories, yet it’s interesting that Suvarna Devi, who is rather baffled by all this interest in her work, remains relatively unaffected. She continues to live in the same town, continues to write without much interest in what the wider world thinks of her work. In this she is rather like Ravi who, more proactively, removes himself from the world’s potential interest in his art and makes of it something small, that he can carry about with him safely and allow it to remain untouched.

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I haven’t been doing such a great job of the South Asian Women Writers Challenge since I moved here and left most of my books behind me. But here is one, and I hope there’ll be a couple more before the end of the year.

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