Book Review : “The Artist of Disappearance” by Anita Desai

It’s possible, even as readers, to get formulaic. Given the length and breadth of popular contemporary literature, we expect our books to give us what movies these days do. If this is true and there is, in fact, one particular kind of narrative we’ve come to expect, The Artist of Disappearance is a narrative of the other kind.

The book, Anita Desai’s most recent work, is made up of 3 stories. Given that the book has only 150 odd pages, the stories are short but presented with her characteristic detail. The first story, “The Museum of Final Journeys” is about an Indian civil servant remembering a past experience while serving in a plantation district in the east.  During the early years of his service, a vast collection of artifacts are brought to his notice by the caretaker of a defunct household whose family members have long since died or disappeared. The story takes you through the thought process of the civil servant who has to decide what to do about these artifacts.

The second story, “Translator Translated” eases us into the life a middle aged college lecturer, Prema, who is given, providentially it would seem, an opportunity to make something of her dull life. She begins translating the work of an Oriya writer into English and in the process struggles with the line between being an author and a translator and the rather inferior literary position of the latter.

The last story, the book’s namesake, is a very nice culmination of the book’s theme. “The Artist of Disappearance” introduces us to a boy who grew up in Mussoorie as the adopted child of a wealthy couple whose Anglicised lifestyle, the boy could never identify with. The story highlights the decay of his parents’ lives with their post colonial overhang. In fact, the point is reinforced with the old and decrepit English caretaker and her inadvertently burning down the family’s ancestral house. The main character, Ravi, becomes a recluse, hiding away in nature, probably finding the most acceptance there.

If you’ve read Anita Desai’s earlier work you’ll be familiar with her writing, complete with descriptions of Dehra Dun and Mussoorie that almost make you expect Ruskin Bond to turn up with a cup of tea. But the author manages to use the style and setting she’s probably most used to, to convey a theme that doesn’t get lost in the narrative. Given that the stories are about failure, regret and retreat, none of the characters are really heroic. But surprisingly, the stories don’t let you dwell on the characters’ personalities or the lack of it. The author use her brilliant descriptive clarity (especially with the landscape) so well that the entire narrative binds together to hold your interest and reveal the central theme of the triptych – Oblivion.

The ancient artifacts, the traveller son who collected them and the once glorious family he belonged to are all relegated to oblivion by time and circumstance. Prema, the college lecturer, tries to fight the oblivion that an unfulfilled, lonely life entails. Ravi, the recluse in the ruined hilltop manor, voluntarily chooses a life of oblivion. How the stories unfold and what they indicate is best described by the book’s epigraph, a quote from J.L. Borges: One thing alone does not exist – oblivion.

In spite of the somewhat sad context, the book does not leave you feeling weighed down. It’s simply three stories that tell you something about the human condition without the usual trappings of a classical hero, vile villain, vampire or dragon. There aren’t enough books that can do that these days and that’s why once you’re done reading Fifty Shades of Grey, this book is definitely worth a read.

[Editor’s Note : As part of Gaysi’s on-going association with Random House India, the author (Olympian) of this post will be gifted one of their published book]

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