The Artist of Disappearance

The Artist of Disappearance

3.5 2
by Anita Desai

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Award-winning novelist Anita Desai explores time and transformation in three artful novellas, set in modern India.See more details below


Award-winning novelist Anita Desai explores time and transformation in three artful novellas, set in modern India.

Editorial Reviews

Ron Charles
If you've never read anything by Anita Desai, you're out of excuses. One of India's most celebrated writers, she's been publishing for almost 50 years and come close to winning the Booker Prize three times…Now she's released The Artist of Disappearance, a collection of three superb novellas that's a rare gift in the sparse December publishing season. Here, in miniature, you can experience the deceptively subtle, slightly surreal and profoundly insightful fiction of a world-class writer.
—The Washington Post
Larry Rohter
Ms. Desai's main themes in her new book are decay and disappointment, retreat and regret…Since the publication of her first novel…nearly 50 years ago, she has often offered portraits of a certain kind of Anglicized urban bourgeoisie or rural landed gentry struggling for meaning against illusions, and The Artist of Disappearance, though barely 150 pages, fits neatly into that distinguished body of work…[Desai's] writing here remains striking.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Desai’s unsettling collection of novellas explores the slow, threatening creep of outside influence into closed communities. In “The Museum of Final Journeys,” an isolated bureaucrat is confronted with a “chamber of death,” a remote, bizarre museum full of embalmed, stuffed animals. “Translator Translated” obliquely explores colonial politics when Prema, a professor specializing in Suvarna Devi, an obscure writer writing in Oriya, Prema’s native language, befriends a glamorous former classmate by offering to translate Devi’s work into English. But by doing so, she comes under fire for not only bringing the text into the language of the colonizers but also for crippling the writer’s work. The elliptical titular story explores the origins of a hermetic man, the last of an unhappy family. The man wants nothing to do with the outside world, but has an ornate garden a trio of students want to film. As the landscape resists them, so the students come to resent each other’s demands and wish to forget the disrespect they’ve visited upon the reclusive inhabitants. Desai (Village by the Sea) treads lightly, at times too lightly, but at its best this collection leaves an indelible impression of the conflicts and ambitions found in a region riddled with conflict. (Dec. 6)
From the Publisher

"[Q]uiet, meticulous, unflinching meditations on the trajectories of three contemporary lives, and on the Indian cultures and landscapes that helped shape them."

--San Francisco Chronicle

"[A] collection of three superb novellas…. deceptively subtle, slightly surreal and profoundly insightful fiction of a world-class writer...These evocative stories about art and culture are sewn deeply into the fraying fabric of modern-day India. The only thing little about this book is its size."

--The Washington Post

"...eloquent and understated...[Desai's prose is] distinguished by its sober, often bracing prose, its patient eye for all-telling detail and its humane but penetrating intelligence..."

--The New York Times Book Review

"'[Desai] proves you can go home again...stirring..."

--Marie Claire

"In three ensnaring novellas of consummate artistry and profoundly disquieting perceptions, master storyteller Desai reflects on the transforming power and devastating limitations of art... Desai’s provocative and mysterious tales of displacement trace the reverberations when the dream of art collides with crushing reality."

--Booklist, starred

"...poignant and wry...a deft exploration of the limits people place on themselves by trying to cling to the past."

--Kirkus Reviews

"This collection leaves an indelible impression of the conflicts and ambitions found in a region riddled with conflict."

--Publishers Weekly

Library Journal
These three novellas by internationally acclaimed author Desai (The Zigzag Way) powerfully explore the despair that comes from unfulfilled dreams. In The Museum of Final Journeys, a young government officer is posted to a remote village, where he finds only stultifying work in depressing conditions. When he is asked to take care of the luxurious and bizarre treasures of a decaying estate, he is forever haunted by his decision. In Translator Translated, English teacher Prema rises out of her torpid life to translate a book of stories written in a little-known language. Her desperation to find fulfillment in the author's work leads her to confuse her role and results in unfortunate consequences. In the title story, Ravi lives a hermetic life in the burnt ruin of his childhood home, creating art out of nature, until a film crew discovers his masterpiece and Ravi is faced with the desecration of his art. VERDICT These stories are heart-wrenching in their portrayal of desperate people clinging to the fragility of hope. Beautifully written, this book will appeal especially to lovers of Indian literature. [See Prepub Alert, 6/13/11.]—Joy Humphrey, Pepperdine Univ. Law Lib., Malibu, CA
Kirkus Reviews
The three protagonists in this trio of novellas struggle with fulfilling their desires while life in modern India speeds past them. Stuck in a career he would not have chosen for himself, the unnamed young government officer of the first novella, The Museum of Final Journeys, finds himself posted to a mosquito-infested backwater. Starved for adventure and dreaming of being a writer, he is led to an incredible collection of colonial-era artifacts housed in a crumbling mansion in the middle of nowhere. But his initial delight turns to claustrophobic dread as he ponders what, if anything, he can do with such useless treasures. Prema, the prematurely aging teacher at the heart of Translator Translated, also yearns for a meaningful life outside her dull routine. And after a chance meeting with a glamorous former schoolmate who runs a small publishing house, it seems as if there really is an opportunity for a different path. The publisher, Tara, allows her to translate into English the story collection of an obscure but talented female writer from the same town as Prema's mother. The rewarding work brings Prema back to life, but a second attempt at translating a lesser novel proves problematic when the author's nephew discovers discrepancies between Prema's words and the original text. Like Prema, Ravi, the recluse in the final, titular novella, is his own worst enemy. As the adopted son of an upper-class anglophile Indian couple, Ravi grows up privileged (if neglected) in the idyllic mountain town of Mussoorie, in the Himalayas. Unable to connect with people his own age, the young Ravi takes solace in nature, until a family tragedy forces him to live with relatives in Bombay. He eventually returns to the mountains, though, and settles into a meager, solitary existence in what used to be his house. His peace is disturbed only when a well-meaning group of documentary filmmakers comes across Ravi's life work, a secret hidden project that he would far prefer to keep to himself. Reading Desai's (Fasting, Feasting, 2000, etc.) poignant and wry new effort offers a modest pleasure that suits its fragile characters. A deft exploration of the limits people place on themselves by trying to cling to the past.

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Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
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7.80(w) x 5.20(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

We had driven for never-ending miles along what seemed to be more a mudbank than a road between fields of viru lent green – jute? rice? what was it this benighted hinter - land produced? I ought to have known, but my head was pounded into too much of a daze by the heat and the sun and the fatigue to take in what my driver was telling me in answer to my listless questions.
  The sun was setting into a sullen murk of ashes and embers along the horizon when he turned the jeep into the circular driveway in front of a low, white bungalow. This was the circuit house where I was to stay until I had found a place of my own. As a very junior officer, a mere subdivisional officer in the august government service, it was all I could expect, a temporary place for one of its minor servants. There was nothing around but fields and dirt roads and dust, no lights or signs of a town to be seen. Noting my disappointment and hesitation at the first sight of my new residence – where had we come to? – the driver climbed out first, lifted my bags from the back of the jeep and led the way up the broad steps to a long veranda which had doors fitted with wire screens one could not see through. He clapped his hands and shouted, ‘Koi hai?’ I had not imagined anyone still used that imperious announcement from the days of the Raj: Anyone there? But perhaps, in this setting, itself a leftover from the empire, not so incongruous at all. Besides, there was no bell and one cannot knock on a screen door.
  I didn’t think anyone had heard. Certainly no light went on and no footsteps were to be heard, but in a bit someone came around the house from the back where there must have been huts or quarters for servants.
  ‘I’ve brought the new officer-sahib,’ the driver announced officiously (he wore a uniform of sorts, khaki, with lettering in red over the shirt pocket that gave him the right). ‘Open a room for him. And switch on some lights, will you?’
  ‘No lights,’ the man replied with dignity. He wore no uniform, only some loose clothing, and his feet were bare, but he held his back straight and somehow established his authority. ‘Power cut.’
  ‘Get a lantern then,’ the driver barked. He clearly enjoyed giving orders.
  I didn’t, and was relieved when the chowkidar – for clearly he was the watchman for all his lack of a uniform – took over my bags and the driver turned to leave. It was night now, and when I saw the headlights of the jeep sweep over the dark foliage that crowded against the house and lined the driveway, then turn around so that the tail lights could be seen to dwindle and disappear, I felt my heart sinking. I did not want to stay in this desolate place, I wanted to run after the jeep, throw myself in and return to a familiar scene. I was used to city life, to the cacophony of traffic, the clamour and din and discordancy of human voices, the pushing and shoving of humanity, all that was absent here.
  While I stood waiting on the veranda for a lamp to be lit so I could be shown to my room, I listened to the dry, grating crackle of palm leaves over the roof, the voices of frogs issuing low warnings from some invisible pond or swamp nearby, and these sounds were even more disquieting than the silence.
  A lighted lantern was finally brought out and I followed its ghostly glow in, past large, looming pieces of furniture, to the room the chowkidar opened for me. It released a dank odour of mildew as of a trunk opened after a long stretch of time and a death or two, and I thought this was surely not a chapter of my life; it was only a chapter in one of those novels I used to read in my student days, something by Robert Louis Stevenson or Arthur Conan Doyle or Wilkie Collins (I had been a great reader then and secretly hoped to become a writer). I remembered, too, the hated voice of the gym master at school shouting ‘Stiffen up now, boys, stiffen up!’ and I nearly laughed – a bitter laugh.
  All the actions that one performs automatically and habitually in the real world, the lighted world – of bathing, dressing, eating a meal – here had to be performed in a state of almost gelid slow motion. I carried the lantern into the bathroom with me – it created grotesquely hovering shadows rather than light, and made the slimy walls and floor glisten dangerously – and made do with a rudimentary bucket of water and a tin mug. To put on a clean set of clothes when I could scarcely make out what I had picked from my suitcase (packed with an idiotic lack of good sense: a tie? when would I ever wear a tie in this pit?) and then to find my way to the dining room and sit down to a meal placed before me that I could scarcely identify – was it lentils, or a mush of vegetables, and was this whitish puddle rice or what? – all were manoeuvres to be carried out with slow deliberation, so much so that they seemed barely worthwhile, just habits belonging to another world and time carried on weakly. The high-pitched whining of mosquitoes sounded all around me and I slapped angrily at their invisible presences.
  Then, with a small explosion, the electricity came on and lights flared with an intensity that made me flinch. An abrupt shift took place. The circuit house dining room, the metal bowls and dishes set on the table, the heavy pieces of furniture, the yellow curry stains on the tablecloth all revealed themselves with painful clarity while the whine of mosquitoes faded with disappointment. Now large, winged ants insinuated their way through the wire screens and hurled themselves at the electric bulb suspended over my head; some floated down into my plate where they drowned in the gravy, wings detaching themselves from the small, floundering worms of their bodies.
  I pushed back my chair and rose so precipitately, the chowkidar came forward to see what was wrong. I saw no point in telling him that everything was. Instructing him abruptly to bring me tea at six next morning, I returned to my room. It felt like a mercy to turn off the impudent light dangling on a cord over my bed and prepare to throw myself into it for the night.
  I had not taken the mosquito net that swaddled the bed into account. First I had to fumble around for an opening to crawl in, then tuck it back to keep out the mosquitoes. At this I failed, and those that found themselves trapped in the netting with me, furiously bit at every exposed surface they could find. What was more, the netting prevented any breath of air reaching me from the sluggishly revolving fan overhead.
  Throughout the night voices rang back and forth in my head: would I be able to go through with this training in a remote outpost that was supposed to prepare me for great deeds in public service? Should I quit now before I became known as a failure and a disgrace? Could I appeal to anyone for help, some mentor, or possibly my father, retired now from this very service, his honour and his pride intact like an iron rod he had swallowed?
  Across the jungle, or the swamp or whatever it was that surrounded this isolated house, pai dogs in hamlets and homesteads scattered far apart echoed the voices in my head, some questioning and plaintive, others fierce and challenging.
  If I had not been ‘stiffened up’ in school and by my father, I might have shed a tear or two into my flat grey pillow. I came close to it but morning rescued me.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
A Best Fiction Audiobook of 2012. "Anita Desai's The Artist of Disappearance, captures refined longing in all of its lonely, repressed majesty." - SoundCommentary Starred Review. "...ensnaring novellas of consummate artistry and profoundly disquieting perceptions...master storyteller...provocative and mysterious..." - Booklist
"...poignant and wry...a deft exploration of the limits people place on themselves by trying to cling to the past." - Kirkus Reviews
"This collection leaves an indelible impression of the conflicts and ambitions found in a region riddled with conflict." - Publishers Weekly Editors' Choice. "Desai is a brilliant anatomist of men and women who seek and gain but fail to triumph." - The New York Times
"A pleasurably irony reading about these lost landscapes of the Indian soul sketched so deftly by Anita Desai." - NPR Book of the Week. "You'll find yourself whipping through pages...stopping only to drool over their descriptions, which is the real treasure of this book, sentences as wondrous as the wonders they bring to life." - Life Lift, The Oprah blog
"...superb...deceptively subtle, slightly surreal and profoundly insightful fiction." - The Washington Post
"Desai explores [India] with such heart in this collection. It's a minute, multifarious world, totally unlike any other." - Los Angeles Times
"...beautiful...Desai's novellas are classic, entranced with the grace of slowly unspooling narrative...breathtaking portraits of contemporary India..." - Boston Globe
"As shrewd as she is compassionate, Desai crafts little snow globes in which characters - trapped, magnified and exposed to unfriendly eyes - try to find ways to live within their limits." - The Columbus Dispatch
"This collection represents an author at the height of her powers. The stories found in The Artist of Disappearance feel light but are possessed of a significant inner strength, the clean and vivid prose akin almost to the flow of a stream: calm and tranquil on the surface but frenzied underneath." - Irish Examiner (UK)
"...sensitive, subtle and unsettling...heartbreakingly honest...Delicate and deeply affecting." - Barnes & Noble Review
"The three novellas collected here provide a varied portrayal of contemporary Indian life both urban and rural...united by complementary themes and, of course, by Desai's clear, precise and often lovely prose." -

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