The Artist of Disappearance
is a 2011 collection of three novellas by Indian-born novelist, short story writer, and professor Anita Desai. Set in contemporary India, regional history and tradition pervade each narrative. Overarching themes of creativity, stifled expression, and regret unify the novellas. In a review of The Artist of Disappearance
, The Guardian
calls Desai “India’s greatest living writer.” Three of her titles were shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and her children’s novel, The Village by the Sea
, won the prestigious Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.
An unnamed government bureaucrat is the first-person narrator of the opening story, “The Museum of Final Journeys.” The official admits that he had “secretly hoped to become a writer,” but instead followed in his father’s bureaucratic footsteps. He describes events that occurred when he was a junior officer, stationed at a remote rural outpost.
The official finds the countryside and its people distasteful. He misses the amenities and pleasures of the city. As time goes by, his routine duties become “oppressive.” The job is nowhere near as exciting has his father and other senior colleagues had described. He falls into a “state of apathy,” until one day, a bowed, bespectacled old man tells him about a museum of treasures, housed in the old Mukherjee estate where he is caretaker. The heir of the estate sent back boxes of valuables from his world travels. The old man worries about what will happen to everything when he is gone: he knows that people are already stealing small items. The caretaker begs the official to get the government to take over and maintain the museum. Although the official is initially intrigued, when he learns the caretaker doesn’t know where the estate’s owner is, he foresees nothing but legal problems. He thinks bitterly, “While others dreamt dreams and lived lives of imagination and adventure, my role was only to take care of the mess left by them.” Nonetheless, he visits the museum.
Looking at the run-down old mansion, he sees at first “only time, and dissolution.” However, as the caretaker leads him through rooms of wonders, from “jewel-like illustrations,” to kimonos, scrolls, and rugs, the official senses that he is a “privileged visitor to a past world.” As he continues through the vast collection, the official is overwhelmed by its “sad obsolescence.” The final treasure is a live, weary-looking elephant. The official promises the caretaker he will be in touch, but never contacts him again. He justifies his inaction, saying, “What else could I have done?”
“Translator Translated” is the second novella in the collection. Prema Joshi is a discontented, “prematurely aged” English-literature teacher at a girls’ school. Like the narrator of the first story, Prema is also a failed writer. Prema runs into Tara, someone she admired in school, who is now a famous feminist publisher. Tara offers Prema the opportunity to translate into English the short stories of a reclusive local author, Suvarna Devi. Prema is thrilled: she admires Devi’s works and appreciates that they are written in Oriya, the native language of Prema’s dead mother. Prema translates the stories but begins to modify them slightly. Prema declares, “I was interpreting the text for her because I had the power—too strong a word perhaps, but the ability, yes.” The translation is published and Prema is excited to finally meet Devi at a writers’ conference. Unfortunately, Prema isn’t impressed with Devi’s unassuming appearance and does not get a private moment to connect with her. When Devi writes a novel, Prema gets the job of translating it.
Prema loses her admiration for Devi. She thinks the new novel is “sluggish.” Prema edits the text, altering the novel significantly. She wants to improve and “create a style for the book.” She sees herself as Devi’s co-author. Devi’s family complains about the liberties Prema takes with the translation, and she loses her position. Prema attempts to write her own stories but discovers she has lost her narrative voice in trying to become Devi. Prema sees the rest of her life as an “empty, unlit road.”
The title story rounds out the collection. Ravi is a recluse living in the burned-out ruins of his family’s mansion in the Himalayan foothills. As a child, Ravi was adopted by wealthy parents who neglected and abused him, leaving him behind during their European tours and making his life miserable with rules and beatings when they were home. Ravi discovered that “Outdoors was freedom. Outdoors was the life to which he chose to belong.” Young Ravi enjoyed observing nature and the “innumerable possibilities” of living things.
Ravi briefly attends college, following expectations he would take over the family business, but after the deaths of his parents, Ravi returns home. He allows his mother’s elderly, nearly blind companion, Miss Wilkinson and her cats to continue living with him. When Miss Wilkinson accidentally sets the house on fire and later dies, Ravi stays in the ruins of his home, avoiding social contact. He finds a hidden glade where he makes detailed patterns out of plants and stones and berries, even waiting for leaves to change to a particular shade before adding them to his evolving masterpiece.
When a documentary film crew arrives on the mountain to shoot a movie about “environmental degradation,” they discover and record Ravi’s artwork. They want to meet Ravi, who refuses to see them. Ravi knows he will not return to the glade: the film crew’s “gaze alone was a desecration” of his work. Instead, he collects matchboxes, filling them with tiny bits of nature. When the boxes are open, they are like “constellations in the night,” and when shut, they become invisible. Ravi can carry them secretly wherever he goes. The film crew realizes that without an interview from Ravi, their images of his artwork are meaningless. They are happy to finally film mining explosions on their way out of the village.