The Artist of Disappearance
Chatto & Windus, 176pp, £12.99
The three novellas in Anita Desai's new collection, The Artist of Disappearance, are all set in India, and two of them are profoundly elegiac. They evoke a vanishing world that India today, with its booming economy and its rampant modernisation, will soon forget, and we see this world at the moment of its fading, caught as it literally crumbles to dust. The title of the first story speaks volumes: "The Museum of Final Journeys" contains echoes of a past familiar to English-speaking readers from stories by Kipling and Leonard Woolf and Somerset Maugham. The narrator is a lonely young Indian civil servant, "a mere subdivisional officer in the august government service", who travels the long mud road through fields of jute to a dank bungalow of mildew and mosquitoes and intermittent electricity which reminds him of the English stories he read as a boy, when he longed to be a writer. But he is obliged to settle down there to this temporary sentence on the way to preferment, adjudicating in property disputes and matters of roads and water supplies, and swatting flies. A long post-colonial shadow falls over his life.
His melancholy apathy is interrupted by the visit of an old man, a storyteller with tales of a mysterious museum on a neighbouring estate, filled with precious artefacts collected from the Far East by the wandering son of a solitary lady widowed young. The elderly curator entices the junior civil servant to visit the museum, where he finds not a "miraculous Xanadu" but something sadder. There are treasures, the spoils of empires, lyrically evoked in Desai's elegant prose, but the priceless miniatures, fans, kimonos and ceramics are mingled with gloomy and worthless objects such as stuffed birds, ancient leather suitcases and a grotesque umbrella stand made from an elephant's foot. It is a vision of an ending, a mausoleum, the collected scraps of many cultures meaninglessly assembled. Outdoors, in a bamboo grove, the last bequest, a living elephant from Burma, is slowly dying. It haunts the narrator as an incomprehensible, dreamlike symbol. But what, he asks himself, could he have done to save it?
The title story, the last of the three, is written largely in the same mournful vein. We meet a young man growing old in the foothills of the Himalayas with a blind, penniless Englishwoman who was once his governess, to whom he reads from the novels of Anthony Trollope and Sir Walter Scott. (She has never learned a word of Hindi.) They, too, are the end of their line. Miss Wilkinson dies as a result of a paraffin stove fire caused by her own negligence. Ravi lives on in the ruins of the burnt-out house, finding some consolation in the natural world. This scene of timeless rural desolation is invaded by the young India, in the form of a television documentary crew who arrive in jeans and dark glasses to film illegal logging and the degradation of the landscape, in which they have no interest.
“Translator Translated", which is sandwiched between these mildly despairing retrospective narratives, strikes a more challenging note. It is not a happy tale, but it has bite. The protagonist is a not wholly sympathetic, depressed, middle-aged teacher of English literature, Prema, condemned to teach The Mill on the Floss and Pride and Prejudice to bored and mocking students. She discovers a new career when she meets an old school friend who has become the successful founder of a feminist press. Prema has relearned her mother tongue, Oriya, the language of the state of Orissa, and now dedicates herself to translating into English the stories of an Oriyan woman novelist. Prema's version is published, yet its passage into print is not smooth: the writer is not interested in her translator, her English-speaking nephew (rightly) accuses Prema of having taken liberties with his aunt's text, and she is attacked at a press conference for pandering to an English readership.
Prema in effect has no language: when, defeated in her ambitions to work as a translator, she tries her hand at writing about her mother's youth, she finds that there are scenes that need to be written in English, others that call out to be written in her mother's language. "I wrote scraps in one, scraps in the other, but tore them all up and threw them away; who would read such a jumble?" She lives uncomfortably between two worlds - the backwater of colonial relics such as The Mill on the Floss and the nationalistic, politically alert new India. She has no place. Desai, born between cultures and speaking several languages, and writing with exquisite precision in one of them, sympathises, but offers little hope.
This story reminded me of a British Council visit in the 1980s to the university at Bhubaneswar in Orissa, where the English department was divided between those who asked us gently about the health of Dr and Mrs Leavis and a younger contingent who were studying Erica Jong and wanted to know if I was happy with the label "post-menstrual feminist novelist". And we were presented with some beautifully bound volumes of poetry in Oriya, of which we understood not a word.
Margaret Drabble's latest book is "A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman: the Collected Stories" (Penguin, £20)