The Artist of Disappearance
by Anita Desai
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 156 pp., $23.00
In these relentlessly noisy times, to deem a writer “quiet” seems tantamount to an insult. Surely “quiet” is synonymous with “dull”? “Discreet” is no better, implying, as it does, prudery of some sort. But any of us must recall the moment when we realized that the smartest girl in school—who was, indeed, both quiet and discreet—was also piercingly observant, frank, and, in some instances, wickedly funny: “quiet” must by no means be mistaken for “dull.” In the past half-century, there have been a number of fierce women writers upon whom that muffling word has been bestowed, among them Jean Rhys, Barbara Pym, Muriel Spark (who, although superficially demure, had, eponymously, an arsonist’s glee), and Anita Desai.
Desai is, in fact, a writer of great subtlety, whose novels—and in this case novellas—are replete not only with evocative descriptions and elegant syntax, but with complex emotion, the profundity of which may demand a close or second reading. That is to say: Desai is only a quiet writer if you aren’t properly listening.
The Artist of Disappearance, her new trio of novellas, is the work of an artist’s maturity: the overarching tone is one of aching loss; and while each of the short pieces is wholly distinct, they are linked in exploring human failings, the regrettable choices that shape individual lives. Although realistically set in the present or recent past, these fictions have a particular timeless quality—almost an old-fashioned air. India itself is portrayed as a place of decay and confusion, a country that, in its race for the future, has lost sight of its past and of its natural splendor. The title novella’s closing paragraphs (which are the closing paragraphs of the book itself) leave us with little hope for the “quiet”—they amount to a resigned herald of the boisterous times.
In the opening novella, “The Museum of Final Journeys,” an unnamed civil servant, now middle-aged, recounts his early posting in a remote town past its prime, confronting obsolescence: “The jute that grew thick and strong in the surrounding fields…was now overtaken by chemical fibres, plastics and polyesters.” Even the house to which he is assigned is bleak in its disarray. From his first arrival, during a power cut, he is overwhelmed by anomie: “I did not want to stay in this desolate place, I wanted to run after the jeep, throw myself in and return to a familiar scene.” And a little later:
This was surely not a chapter of my life; it was only a chapter in one of those novels I used to read in my student days, something by Robert Louise Stevenson or Arthur Conan Doyle or Wilkie Collins (I had been a great reader then and secretly hoped to become a writer).
Inevitably, in spite of his father’s assurances that the work would be interesting, the narrator finds it tedious (“My secretary brought in the files to me, tied with red tape—I was amused …