Book Reviews

Book Review: 'The Artist Of Disappearance'

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The Artist of Disappearance, from Indian writer Anita Desai, is a trilogy. All three works dwell on themes of change and permanence, and they illustrate the conflicts and challenges of modern Indian culture.


The writer, Anita Desai, has said her home country, India, is the source of all her fiction. Her new book brings together three stories about art and its limitations in India. Our critic, Alan Cheuse, has this review of "The Artist of Disappearance."

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: Three novellas in a book only about 150 pages long, each of them set in contemporary India, each of them evoking lost epics and suggesting thwarted futures, as well.

In the first of the three titled, "The Museum of Final Journeys," a seasoned government bureaucrat looks back to the time of his first posting to a provincial town. There, he answers the call of an impoverished caretaker to scrutinize the fading treasures of a family, almost all of whom have faded away themselves.

I found myself invaded, the bureaucrat writes of the objects he encounters in the family museum, by their poetic melancholy and would have liked to linger, fancying myself as a privileged visitor to a past world.

In "Translator Translated," the second novella, a middle-aged urban translator named Prema attempts to build a career on an illusion. Her success comes from a deliberately distorted rendering of the work of a little known writer in a minor provincial language.

The title novella introduces us early in his life to a character named Ravi. He's been psychologically abused. He's suffered neglect and poverty and, in adulthood, he finds peace only in hermit-like solitude in a densely beautiful Himalayan landscape in which one glittering bee or beetle or a single note of birdsong might contain an entire season. A film crew invades Ravi's hillside refuge and wants to record him, but like many of the fragile treasures of an India gone, he's already departed.

A pleasurably irony reading about these lost landscapes of the Indian soul sketched so deftly by Anita Desai.

NEARY: The book is "The Artist of Disappearance." Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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