The Artist of Disappearance

The Artist of Disappearance

by Anita Desai


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Finalist for the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction

“The excellent strength [the novellas] share is a gracefulness and dreamlike sonority, reminiscent of writers like Jhumpa Lahiri and W.G. Sebald, wherein strange evolutions of solitary lives are the rule, and readers are held by the stately, hypnotic dignity of the voice that tells them.” – San Francisco Chronicle

Set in modern India, these three novellas move beyond the cities to places still haunted by the past, and to characters who are, each in their own way, masters of self-effacement. An unnamed government official is called upon to inspect a faded mansion of forgotten treasures where he discovers a surprise "relic." A translator blurs the line between writer and translator, and in so doing risks unraveling her desires and achievements. In the title novella, a hermit hidden away in the woods with a secret is discovered by a film crew, which compels him to withdraw even further until he magically disappears . . .

Rich and evocative, remarkable in their clarity and sensuous in their telling, these novellas remind us of the extraordinary yet delicate power of this pre-eminent writer.

“Desai, at her best, offers enchanting, subtle, and deeply observed portraits of layered characters trapped between worlds.” – Daily Beast

“Lingers in the memory the same way these landscapes and people of India prove impossible to forget.” – Boston Globe

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547840123
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 11/20/2012
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 359,850
Product dimensions: 7.80(w) x 5.20(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

ANITA DESAI is the author of Fasting, Feasting, Baumgartner’s Bombay, Clear Light of Day, and Diamond Dust, among other works. Three of her books have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Desai was born and educated in India and now lives in the New York City area.

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.

Table of Contents


The Museum of Final Journeys

Translator Translated

The Artist of Disappearance

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." -

Customer Reviews