Archive for November 16th, 2013

November 16, 2013

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.


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.


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.

November 16, 2013

Tina Connolly, Ironskin

Jane Eyre is one of the books that converted me to literary criticism (I probably didn’t need much converting)–there’s so much you can do with it. I suspect this is a big part of why Ironskin felt so underwhelming. Without Jane Eyre it would be a decent, rather light, fantasy-steampunk-thing with a somewhat muddled thesis about beauty; with it, it just seems inconsequential. The sequel, Copperhead, just came out, but I’ll be waiting for other people’s reviews before I pick it up.

From a column published a couple of weeks ago.


Hit by a fey curse during the Great War, Jane Elliot wears a mask (“ironskin”) over her face to keep in her supernaturally-induced rage. In the wake of the war, England (if it is England; it is never named as such) has lost much of its technological capability (bought from the fey) and with it its prosperity. Jane’s beautiful sister Helen is able to escape (partially) her situation by marrying a wealthy man; Jane chooses to support herself as a teacher.

It’s at this point that Tina Connolly’s Ironskin begins to make clear its literary debts. Jane goes to Silver Birch Hall to be governess to the daughter of Mr Rochart, a child who is herself fey-cursed in weird and unsettling ways. She finds herself falling in love with her employer, despite knowing that there is some awful secret about him and his house. It’s hard to miss the fact that this is a retelling of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre; Jane Elliot is Jane Eyre, Mr Rochart is Mr Rochester. Even minor characters have names that echo those in Brontë’s novel—there’s a “Blance Inglis”, a “Grace”, a “Helen”.

But what of Mr Rochester’s first wife? “[Jane] did not know what she expected—a row of skeletons, a murdered wife, a madwoman with a mysterious laugh? The nameless terror of her nightmares?”

Jane Eyre is not Ironskin’s only intertext. There are references to “the fey story of Bluebeard, you know” (Ironskin’s approach to literary allusion is never particularly subtle) with its young woman instructed not to pry into her beloved’s secrets, and its mysterious former wife or wives whose shadow hangs over the whole—interestingly Brontë refers to the same fairytale. Rochart himself gives Jane other lenses through which to view this story; with a reference to the old Scottish ballad of Tam Lin (“[s]tolen away by the fey, and for his beloved to win him back, she had to hold him as he changed into a variety of loathsome beasts”) he casts himself as straightforwardly a victim in need of rescue. With an earlier allusion to Beauty and the Beast he is again the victim (though of the two of them it is Jane who bears the physical mark of a magical curse).

Done right, alluding to other well-known works within a book can add depth both to the new work and the original. Reading Ironskin is an exercise in frustration because its insistence that we notice its literary references seems to promise that something will be done with them; that the relationship between this book and those others will reveal new layers of meaning in both, or at least in this one. It never happens.

Connolly’s recasting as fantasy of the years following the First World War is cleverly done— while most of the narrative is set outside the major cities, we see enough of the collapse of an economy dependent until now on fey technology, the social upheavals caused by large scale poverty and the loss of almost an entire generation of men, to make this world seem plausible (though the only time empire is mentioned it’s in relation to dress styles). That this new society should place a premium on beauty and luxury after the recent horrors it has endured makes sense, and the book sets up and interesting debate about physical beauty and our personal and social relationships with it.

But the shadow of Jane Eyre, resolutely “poor, obscure, plain and little” looms over this book. Perhaps my frustration with the book has made me cynical but by the end the multiple literary references begin to feel like so many empty signifiers, scattered across a pleasant but quite lightweight book in the hope that the reader will never quite get to the point of asking what it is, exactly, that they’re supposed to signify.