It is hard to find a description of Anita Desai that doesn’t herald the author as India’s finest writer in English, the grande dame of Indian/English letters, or the gatekeeper of the subcontinent’s versatile and tactile use of language. Her first novel, Cry, the Peacock, was published in 1963 and was followed by a succession of novels, two of which – Clear Light of Day and In Custody – were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Desai has also garnered the Sahitya Akademi award, the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, and India’s Padma Shri award. This is a reputation she richly deserves, even when she breaks the rules of storytelling to mixed effect.
Her latest book, The Artist of Disappearance, is divided into three novellas. The first, “The Museum of Final Journeys”, focuses on the malaise of civil service and seems purposefully intent on leaving the reader listless once the pages have been turned.
To start a book with a tale of broken promises, of boredom and unfulfilled years seems a dangerous thing to do. But Desai writes dangerously well and just about gets away with beginning her latest offering with glum characters and underwhelming twists and climaxes. Perhaps this is her intention – to leave you wanting as she de-glamourises and exposes the banality of public life.
The rural Indian setting is romantic, flush with tea bushes and jute fields, diaphanous mosquito netting and milky, sugary chai. It is also the sort of place where one laments the absence of old Sahib sports clubs, people are insects who perpetually whine in one’s ear and the phrase “no lights today” can be uttered with dignity, if only because it is said so often.
The second novella is the best of the three. “Translator Translated” is elegantly paced and smartly crafted to reveal transformative characters. The author plays with her readers here, first drawing them in and then exposing certain prejudices – which her characters share – such as the notion that the English language is unquestionably superior to the canon of vernacular tongues. Meanwhile, she asks important questions through her protagonist, Prema Joshi, a mousy professor-turned-translator, about the mass of Indian languages and their impact on a growing people’s sense of national belonging. Who says the language we’re reading is the final authority when it comes to literature? What about Bengali and Urdu literature and thousands of other lost tongues?
Desai flips back and forth between voices – Prema turns into “I” when translating and slides into the third person for all other endeavours, even as she oversteps her brief as a translator and begins to “transcreate” in the author’s words – a polite way of saying that Prema hijacks the novel and rewrites it in her own voice and with her own twists.
The third novella, from which the book takes its title, is somewhat lacklustre. It revolves around the shy adopted son of a westernised couple who summer in Montreux, Switzerland, depend on India only for their livelihood and keep children as it’s in fashion to do so. As a young boy, Ravi is enchanted by the natural world around him but is separated from it by his fashionable family. Ravi later becomes a reclusive, orphaned adult living in the singed, blackened-out remains of his family’s once grand home until, that is, he eventually turns into a forest-dwelling “Boo Radley”, said by local children to have the ghostly powers of disappearance.
The writing remains graceful and lyrical here, but it fails to save the story. The characters in this novella are featureless and monochrome. Politics is introduced too late into the story and Desai misses the opportunity to close the book with an engaging end to her triptych.
The strength of The Artist of Disappearance comes in the form of a familiar trope of subcontinental writing: the many whisper-thin, timid, tremulous characters, the desperate millions of unsure, uncounted and unseen. But Desai sees them and does so clearly. It seems a statement that she employs them often and in doing so ensures at least a glance at this other India, one not inhabited by Bollywood stars, IT gurus and fasting swamis who practise yoga.
Fatima Bhutto is the author of ‘Songs of Blood and Sword’ (Vintage)
The Artist of Disappearance, by Anita Desai, Chatto & Windus, RRP£12.99, 176 pages