Book review: Gripping novellas in Anita Desai’s ‘Artist of Disappearance’

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. (Ironically, her daughter, Kiran Desai, beat her to it in 2006 for “The Inheritance of Loss.”) 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.

Each of these three stories is firmly rooted in the dynamic world of Indian culture, torn between centuries of tradition and new forces of capitalism. As the title suggests, she’s particularly interested in the survival of art: Who owns it, what is its function and how shall it be passed along to new audiences? These are questions Desai handles in the most surprising and melancholy ways.

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) - "The Artist of Disappearance: Novellas" by Anita Desai.

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All three novellas take place at the rubbed-raw point of contact between modern and rural communities. Desai has a sharply tuned ear for the condescension of well-educated Indians, whom she skewers and finally pities in her restrained, formal voice.

The first piece, “The Museum of Final Journeys,” is narrated by a bitter young administrator appointed to a post in the “benighted hinterland.” A frustrated writer who imagines that his civil service career is doomed, he spends his days listening to the tedious disputes of local citizens. “While others dreamt dreams and lived lives of imagination and adventure,” he whines, “my role was only to take care of the mess left by them.”

But one day, an old man invites him to come see the private museum that his employer has left behind. At this point, the story slides into the fantastical as imperceptibly as twilight fades to darkness. The abandoned museum turns out to be an overwhelming display of riches, but is it also an indication of some deep-seated anger — or even madness? When does the act of curating pass into mere hoarding? Fans of Steven Millhauser will recognize that familiar sense of vertigo in this Escher-like mansion of cascading rooms full of exotic treasures.

“I felt sated,” the narrator writes with increasing panic, “hardly able to take in any more wonders, any more miracles, but detected a certain ruthlessness to my guide’s opening of door after door, ushering me on and on, much further than I wished to go.” Balanced between anxiety and melancholy, “The Museum of Final Journeys” is a little toothache of a story that you’ll have trouble putting out of your mind.

The next novella is more complicated and modern, though it opens with a similarly embittered writer as the central character. A discouraged college teacher named Prema Joshi runs into an old high school idol who now owns a feminist publishing house. Prema can’t believe this important woman remembers her at all, but during a brief conversation, the publisher asks her to submit a proposal to translate the works of an obscure indigenous writer. That assignment, casually offered by a busy professional, nevertheless transforms Prema’s drab life. She quickly moves from writing a dutiful translation to fantasizing about her vastly expanded role: “I saw that what was needed was for me to be inventive,” she says, “take things into my own hands and create a style for the book. So, instead of a literal translation, I decided to take liberties with the text.”

What develops is an odd, darkly comic parable of cultural imperialism. How much better, Prema imagines, this indigenous writer will be once her homely stories have felt the benefit of a more sophisticated hand. “I laughed out loud and struck my forehead with my hand,” she says. “I had never felt such power, never had such power, such joy in power. . . .My translation was an uncovering, a revealing of what had been buried, concealed in her work. In a way, you could say I was the writer.”

Feel the cringe-inducing irony? The whole story stings with that uncomfortable sensation. Prema’s hiccups of self-aggrandizement and despair manage to excite our sympathy and our revulsion, not to mention the horror that we might be seeing ourselves all too clearly. Indeed, Desai takes a certain perverse pleasure in exposing the self-pity of mediocre people; if Anita Brookner were a little meaner, she might write like this. But the story darts and feints in ways that make its point of view difficult to pin down. Politically correct left-wingers defending indigenous purity feel the heat of her satire, as do conservatives who mutter that “all this pandering to the Muslim minority, hadn’t it gone too far?” What remains out of reach, though, is the real artist, that elderly, indigenous writer whom Prema thought she would bring to the world.

The final story is marked by even more surprising shifts in focus, as Desai pushes on the constraints of the novella. But as in the first two stories, we find again an inaccessible work of art — in this case a strange bower in the mountains designed by a hermit. Documentary filmmakers from Delhi hope to get some footage of this otherworldly creation, imagining that they can both capture and enhance the artist’s work by putting it on television. But to the hermit, “their gaze alone was a desecration.” That sort of profound aesthetic theme can seem precious, but there’s dynamite ahead, literal and figurative. 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.

Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles .

The Artist of Disappearance

By Anita Desai

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 156 pp. $23

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