Desai is gently deep

The Artist of Disappearance

Anita Desai

Vintage, €17.15;adobe ebook, €10.73

Review: Billy O’Callaghan

Anita Desai’s latest offering, a triptych of novellas new in paperback, is a delicate morsel of a book. The setups are essentially undramatic, a straightforward life moment past or present, rendered as fact. But devoid of punchline epiphany and left wide open to interpretation, they resonate from the deep and linger long in the mind, each story lending a peculiar and affecting momentum to the next, each hinting at some new and only partially grasped understanding of the others.

All three novellas concern situations of art, instants of the past trapped in perfect expression. Yet they are perfect mainly in their relative anonymity, and all are compromised by the threat of exposure to the clamour of the wider world.

In The Museum of Final Journeys our narrator recounts an event from years earlier when, as a local government administrator of a remote outpost, he was visited by the elderly overseer of a once-powerful plantation. The overseer explains that the house has been converted into a private museum of vast foreign treasures, but now that the family has died off the expense of running such an enterprise is bankrupting the estate. The narrator visits to investigate the situation and discovers the full overwhelming truth.

Translator Translated, probably the most captivating story of the three, concerns a dowdy spinster professor, expert in an obscure Indian language, Oriya, which had been her mother’s native tongue.

After an unexpected encounter at a class reunion, she dares to dream of a new direction in her life: as a translator of that language’s single significant literary voice. However, after a successful first book, the second project feels flat, devoid of any spark, and so she takes it upon herself to expand her role, first as editor and then, uninvited, as co-writer.

The title story completes the collection and is set in a hidden corner of the Himalayas, and a Garden of Eden created by a local recluse. A film crew arrive in town to document the destructive effect of modern-day industrial corruption on the environment, and stumbling across this treasure during their explorations, seek to bring it to the attention of the world.

For over 50 years, Miss Desai, three times shortlisted for the Booker Prize, has been recognised as one of India’s most captivating talents. 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.

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