three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
57-Mar-Apr-2012
By: 
Anita Desai
user_rating: 
0

A-The-Artist-of-Disappearance-1Anita Desai is one of the most distinguished Indian-born authors (she now lives in New York). Her work, which has been short-listed for the Booker Prize three times, includes Clear Light of Day (1980), In Custody (1984), and Fasting, Feasting (1999). This is her 15th book.

The Story: Desai explores the difference between ancient tradition and modern capitalism in this collection of three novellas. In "The Museum of Final Journeys," a resentful young administrator is assigned to a remote Indian outpost. He spends his hours processing tedious property disputes until, one day, he discovers a mysterious museum housed within an abandoned estate. In "Translator, Translated," a teacher's life changes forever when she is asked to translate a book written in Oriya, the language of her childhood. And in the title story, a documentary film crew stumbles upon a reclusive stone artist named Ravi.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 156 pages. $23. ISBN: 9780547577456

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars"Here, in miniature, you can experience the deceptively subtle, slightly surreal and profoundly insightful fiction of a world-class writer. ... Desai has a sharply tuned ear for the condescension of well-educated Indians, whom she skewers and finally pities in her restrained, formal voice." Ron Charles

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars"Desai writes of Ravi's explorations of a single pond: ‘He felt it could take an entire life to study the strange, extraordinary life that teemed in it--minute, multifarious and totally unlike any earthbound equivalent.' The same could be said of the India that Desai explores with such heart in this collection." Hector Tobar

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 3.5 of 5 Stars"In all three novellas gathered here, that lament is focused on what's been lost by India itself--reminding us that heady celebrations of how the world is now flat rarely acknowledge what gets bulldozed in making it smooth." Mike Fischer

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars"My quiet reservation about these evocative, disturbing tales is that they run a bit long for their purposes, particularly the latter two. ... The excellent strength they share is a gracefulness and dreamlike sonority, reminiscent of writers like Jhumpa Lahiri and W. G. Sebald, wherein strange evolutions of solitary lives are the rule, and readers are held by the stately, hypnotic dignity of the voice that tells them." Joan Frank

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars"After she has superbly built up the suspense of her narrative [in ‘The Museum of Final Journeys'], Desai's snapped-apart transition to a desultory valediction is disappointingly fragmentary, a devaluation of our finely developed investment in this man's life. ... The collection is redeemed, however, by the third novella." Randy Boyagoda

Critical Summary

Anita Desai's elegant, sweeping compilation follows the lives of outsiders and outcasts in Indian society. As is the case with most collections of short stories and novellas, critics favored some of the novellas over the others, though they were not consistent in their praise. Several others thought that the novellas were overlong, but the Washington Post loved every word of all three of them, stating "the only thing little about this book is its size." Though opinions may vary, most readers will find a thoughtful, eloquent collection about "men and women who seek, gain, but fail to triumph in such moments and are left to play their own kind of solitaire, matching what was to what might have been" (New York Times Book Review).