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The Artist of Disappearance – Book Review

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, on this bus, have had that window close and remain closed. – from Translator Translated –

The Artist of Disappearance is a collection of novellas which are all set in India and have the similar themes of identity, searching for meaning in one’s life and how place can define who we become.

The Museum of Final Journeys, the first novella in the book, introduces the idea that memory is fragile and unreliable. Another theme in the story is the delicate balance of the natural world in a modernized society. In this story, a young man arrives in a dusty, desolate town where he has been posted to complete his training for a government position. He laments the long, dull days and the slovenly conditions of his new home. Then, one afternoon, a clerk arrives to make an appeal – he is the curator of sorts of an unusual museum but he can no longer afford to keep it running and wishes for the government to take it over. Intrigued, the narrator agrees to visit the museum. What he finds is astonishing and surprising – a treasure trove of objects, the unusual story of a family, and a creature whose life depends on the benevolence of her caretakers. Years later, his memory of the event is fragmented and frail like a mirage – perhaps as a way to resolve the guilt he feels for his lack of action.

The second story in the collection, Translator Translated, centers around Prema, an Indian woman who unexpectedly runs into an old high school friend and gets the opportunity to realize her dream of translating fiction. In this novella, Desai explores the different cultures of India and the loss of little known languages, as well as the role language plays in our identity. Prema loves the language of Oriya which is her mother’s tongue, but it is a language which very few people speak or understand. When Prema begins translating a book from Oriya into English she finds herself struggling to connect the two halves of her own life which includes the inter-caste marriage of her parents. As Prema works, she finds it harder and harder to be faithful in her translation of the author’s work.

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? – from Translator Translated –

As the novella unfolds, Prema becomes more lost to herself as she converts her mother tongue into the colonial language of English. Translator Translated is a beautiful meditation on the loss of culture and identity in a modern world.

The final story of this collection is, perhaps, my favorite. The Artist of Disappearance centers around Ravi, an odd man who is isolated from society and lives in the burned out shell of his family’s home. Ravi has always been different from others. He is especially connected to nature.

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. – from The Artist of Disappearance –

Ravi’s story is about nurturing that part of ourselves which is connected to the earth. In the towns around Ravi’s home, bulldozers are destroying the land and mining has stripped the earth of living creatures. But, high in the mountains, Ravi constructs a beautiful glade made from stones and trees, flowers and berries. Ravi is completely disconnected from society while being wholly connected to the physical space he calls home.

As a whole, Desai’s collection is nearly dreamlike in quality. Her characters have unfulfilled dreams and are disillusioned with their lives. Each character is presented with opportunities to enrich themselves and then find they stumble because of their human imperfection.

Anita Desai writes beautifully. She captures the beauty of India, but also does not hesitate to reveal its faults and complexities. I thoroughly enjoyed this slim volume of stories whose characters struggle and search for meaning in their lives.

Highly recommended for readers who love literary fiction.

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FTC Disclosure: I received this book through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.

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6 Comments

  1. January 16, 2012    

    Oooh, this sounds like a book I would love. Novellas, dreamlike, all winners. Going on my Goodreads wishlist right now! Thanks for a great review, Wendy!

    • January 19, 2012    

      Hope you love it, Andi!

  2. January 16, 2012    

    Oh, this does indeed sound interesting, and I have been more interested in short stories in the past few months than ever before. I like to rely on other bloggers for recommendations on good collections, and it seems like this one might be worth checking out. Great review today. All these stories seem rather unique. Glad you liked it!

    • January 19, 2012    

      Heather: Knowing your tastes (from reading your excellent blog!), I think you would like this one…hope so, anyway!

  3. January 17, 2012    

    This sounds wonderful, Wendy. Desai’s Fire on the Mountain was the first novel by an East Indian author I every read and it has stuck with me through the years. Thanks for the review.

    • January 19, 2012    

      Gavin: This was the first I’ve read from Anita Desai – but now I want to read more. I must check out Fire on the Mountain sometime.

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