Book review: The Artist of Disappearance by Anita Desai

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The Artist of Disappearance by Anita Desai Chatto & Windus, 156pp, £12.99

Anita Desai writes exquisitely. This makes even minor works, such as the three novellas that make up this book, a pleasure to read. Such writing can, admittedly, become an end in itself, manner more important than matter. Somerset Maugham once remarked that many of the greatest novelists often wrote clumsily: Balzac, Dickens and Dostoevski were three examples he gave. What they had to say was so urgent that they wrote in a fine frenzy, apparently unconcerned about how they said it. This is not, of course, a justification of bad writing.

Each of these novellas is inconclusive. All may seem to promise more than they deliver, and so the reader, having accompanied the author on a journey, rich in delightful detail, may eventually be disappointed, and even ask "but what was it all about?" The question is understandable, yet misses the point. If the stories seem to peter out, this is, I think, by design.

Each recounts vivid moments, which leave a lingering memory of an opportunity missed or a path not taken.

A young official takes up his first posting in a province, once prosperous, now in decline. His accommodation is miserable, his work tedious. One day an old man comes seeking his help. He is the caretaker of what used to be a grand house. He explains that the family's wealth has evaporated and the lady he served has left.

Her son set off years ago on a journey, from which he sent back all sorts of treasures, perhaps to form a museum. Would the young official please come to see it and persuade the government to assume responsibility?

He accepts the invitation reluctantly. There are indeed wonderful things, but the house is in poor repair, many of the exhibits are damaged; the visit is depressing. There is an elephant - the last thing the son sent home. The old man says that he may have to start dismantling the museum, to care for the elephant. The official is depressed. He goes away, with a vague promise, is soon transferred, and has a successful career. As for the museum and the elephant - "what is that saying about ships passing in the night? Is there a landlocked version of it - caravans passing in the desert, or elephants in the forest?"

In the second story Prema, a teacher of English literature in a poor college, meets Tara, the glamour girl of her old school, now a successful publisher. She speaks of a collection of short stories written in one of India's many minority languages, her own as a child, and receives a commission to translate them. She experiences an unaccustomed feeling of optimism and ambition. The translation is a modest success.

The author then embarks on a novel, but Prema finds it much inferior.The freshness of the stories is missing, and much of the material is boring. So she sets herself to translate it more creatively, cutting tedious passages and enlivening the blank prose with adjectives and adverbs

The author's nephew objects to what she has done. There is no scandal but the book fails, modestly. Prema goes back to teaching. She knows she bores her students and that the principal wants her to retire. But what would she do with the rest of her life. It stretches before her "like an empty, unlit road".

The third story is the best. Ravi lives alone in the ruins of his burned-out house. He was once a withdrawn child, a failure at school and college. His parents were once rich. When they died he abandoned any thought of a career. He returned home. A former servant brings him food every day. He wanders the hills and the forest, and in a secret hiding-place has made for himself a strange work of art. A television crew comes to the district, seeking to make a film about environmental degradation. Their presence is occasion for bitter comedy. The female member of the crew discovers Ravi's secret place. He feels it has been violated; it has suffered its own degradation. "Brooding, he sat studying his hands as if they were all that were left to him now that he had nothing to work on.." He will withdraw still further into himself.

Sadness pervades these stories. They are all about failure, empty lives, broken lives, ambitions that turn to dust. The members of the film crew hope to achieve success by exposing environmental degradation, and this certainly is all around them. But Desai reveals the wasteland of emotional degradation. This is why all three novellas must peter out.

Her subject, exquisitely treated, is emptiness. It is not exhilarating, but the keenness of her eye for detail makes individual paragraphs a delight.

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