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Desai's 'Disappearance': Three Tales Of Art And Time

Dec 10, 2011
Originally published on December 15, 2011 5:56 pm

Anita Desai's new collection of stories, The Artist of Disappearance, reads a bit like three symphonic movements in a minor key. They're three novellas, set in modern India, where the past is giving way. In one story, a government official inspects the forgotten treasures left behind in a fated mansion. In another story, a translator becomes a little too creative; and in the third, a man living in solitude finds his world upset by roving visitors.

There are no car chases or explosions — just the drama of people confronting themselves. Desai, has written more than a dozen novels and collections, and has been shortlisted three times for the Booker Prize. She talks with NPR's Scott Simon about the origins of her three stories.

In "Museum of Final Journeys," a civil servant is called in to appraise an old collection of antiquities. They are not works of art per se — there are globes and travel posters, stuffed birds and lizards, masks, daggers, scrolls, bells and clocks long broken. The civil servant calls it a "gloomy storehouse of abandoned, disused, decaying objects"; he says he wishes to "break free and flee."

Desai says the idea for the story came to her while she was walking through a museum — the objects, taken from their original homes, seemed orphaned. "Having been removed from where they belonged, where they'd been made, they had lost the quality of life," she says. "They all were just objects — shut up in glass cases, which made me wonder: What makes people collect such objects? What can it mean to anyone?"

In the second story, a professor named Perma Joshi translates a novel from an Indian language — and finds that she loves how powerful it makes her feel. Desai says she based the story on translators that she has known over the years.

"I realized that all translators, they all long to be writers themselves," Desai explains. "If they didn't have that longing, they probably wouldn't be very good translators, but a lot of them do have that creative urge — and my character Perma Joshi simply gets carried away with that."

Desai says she's never felt that her own work was translated unfaithfully, but her daughter, Booker Prize-winning novelist Kiran Desai, once wrote a very funny book that, when translated into Scandinavian languages, didn't make anyone laugh. "There was no humor left in it whatsoever," Desai says.

Desai was pleasantly surprised when her daughter became a writer. "All my children told me they never wanted to become writers," Desai recalls. "They said, 'You lead such a boring life. We don't want to live like you do.' "

Anita Desai always told her daughter that she wrote wonderful letters, but it wasn't until Kiran's college professors encouraged her to write that she really took it seriously. Now the mother and daughter write together, in the same house. "It's wonderful to be able to talk about our work, about each other's work, about the books we are reading," Desai says.

In the final story in the collection, a character named Ravi is living a hermit-like existence — working on a splendid rock sculpture hidden in the Himalayan foothills.

"He's never really entered the adult world, and he retains the child's point of view," Desai explains. "He never really thinks of himself as an artist. He has no desire to reveal it to the outer world. He simply doesn't have those adult impulses and ambitions."

But when a television crew from Delhi comes to visit, they view Ravi and his work in a different light. The story raises the question: Is there art without an audience?

Desai certainly thinks so: "All of us who have ever written, composed music [or] painted know that when we performed these acts, we are not in touch with the world, we are completely withdrawn from it and in our own world. We are re-creating an inner world."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Anita Desai's new collection of stories, "The Artist of Disappearance," reads a bit like three symphonic movements in a minor key. They're three novellas set in modern India in which the past is giving way. In one story, a government official inspects the forgotten treasures left behind in a faded mansion, until he finds a huge treasure, living on borrowed time. In another story, a translator becomes a little too creative; and in the third, a man living in solitude finds his world upset by roving visitors. There are no car chases or explosions but the drama of people confronting themselves.

Anita Desai, who has written more than a dozen novels and collections, and has been shortlisted three times for the Booker Prize, joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

ANITA DESAI: Thank you for asking me.

SIMON: The first story, "Museum of Final Journeys," there's a civil servant who is called in to appraise an old collection of antiquities. And there's some exceptions, not works of art per se; they're globes and travel posters, and stuffed birds and lizards, and masks, and daggers, and scrolls, and bells and clocks long broken. And he calls it - I wrote down this wonderful phrase - this gloomy storehouse of abandoned, disused, decaying objects. I wanted only to break free and flee. Is there a theme in there about the different ways people have of looking at the past?

DESAI: To tell you the truth, I thought of that story all in about five minutes when I was walking through a museum that was just like the Museum of Oriental Art in Venice.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

DESAI: Apparently an Italian aristocrat had set out and travelled in the East and sent back all these treasures, and yet having been removed from where they belonged, where they'd been made, they had lost the quality of life. They were just objects shut up in glass cases, which made me wonder: what makes people collect such objects? What can it mean to anyone?

So I was also thinking about the pointlessness of it all, the futility of trying to recreate other countries, other histories, other pasts.

SIMON: Your second story, a teacher, a professor name Perma Joshi, translates a novel from an Indian language and she kind of likes the power...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: ...that she enjoys. It - she finishes a session of translation and it makes her sort of see the world differently when she walks back out into the street. What changed her?

DESAI: Well, this is a story based very much on the translators I have known myself and heard other writers talk of. And I realized that all translators, they all long to be writers themselves. If they didn't have that longing, they probably wouldn't be very good translators, but a lot of them do have that creative urge, and my character Perma Joshi simply gets carried away with that.

SIMON: This inevitably raises the question as to whether you've ever encountered one of your works being translated by a translator who in your mind took too many liberties.

DESAI: I can't quote from my own experience, but I know my daughter being told that a very, very funny book that she wrote, her very first book - the kind of book which makes you laugh out loud - when it was translated into some of the Scandinavian languages, didn't make anyone laugh at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DESAI: There was no humor left in it whatsoever.

SIMON: You mentioned your daughter who, of course, is Kiran Desai, an accomplished novelist and Booker Prize winner. What did you tell her about writing, looking back on it?

DESAI: I didn't tell her anything. All my children told me they never wanted to become writers. They said, you lead such a boring life. We don't want to live the way you do. And even Kiran just fought against the idea of writing. I used to tell her, she writes such wonderful letters, why doesn't she do more with that. And she would always say, no. But she went a very way good college and the professors there encouraged her to write. Like me, they saw she had that spark in her. This was what she should really be doing. And now, of course, we both write in the same house and it's wonderful to be able to talk about our work, about each other's work, about the books we're reading.

SIMON: Oh, what a blessing that is for a mother and daughter to be able to do that.

DESAI: Oh yes, it is.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the final story in this collection. It's the title story, "The Artist of Disappearance." You have a character, Ravi, who is living what we would call a hermit-like existence. He's been working on a kind of splendid rock sculpture hidden in the Himalayan foothills, and then a movie crew from Delhi comes to visit. And they see things differently, I think it's safe to say. What's the difference between Ravi and the people, the film people?

DESAI: I think Ravi, as you say, is something of a hermit and he's never really entered the adult world, and he retains the child's point of view. He never thinks of himself as an artist. He has no desire to reveal it to the outer world. He simply doesn't have those adult impulses or ambitions.

The television crew that comes up from Delhi, of course, is totally different. They belong to two different worlds.

SIMON: Well, for me this story raised the question: Is there art without an audience?

DESAI: I think the audience is quite certain that there isn't - that the art only becomes art once it is looked upon as such. But I, in my experience, there are artists who have done things entirely for themselves and the audience is unimportant and often destructive to their vision. But all of us who've ever written, composed music, painted, know that when we performed these acts, we are not in touch with the world, we are completely withdrawn from it and in our own world we are recreating an inner world.

SIMON: Ms. Desai, awfully good speaking with you. Thanks so much.

DESAI: Thank you for asking me.

SIMON: Anita Desai, her new book of three novellas is "The Artist of Disappearance." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.