Always an astute observer and subtle writer about human nature, Anita Desai is at her best here, creating three novellas revealing the interplay between a main character dealing with universal issues and a second character who sees the world and its values quite differently. The result is book that is morally serious and filled with thematically weighty stories which also reveal subtle, unspoken lessons - neither moralistic, obvious, nor absolute. As each main character approaches the end of a problem, s/he might well conclude that what s/he wants, "[is] dead, a dead loss, a waste of time." But "the loss" is not the point. The reader gains a new appreciation of the small joys and great sorrows which fill the lives of plain people in rural India trying to find beauty and, perhaps, the fulfillment of dreams within an overwhelming reality. All the characters want to preserve something beautiful and important, but all must persevere against insensitive powers. Ultimately, each main character becomes an "artist of disappearance," either physically, emotionally, or spiritually.
In "The Museum of Final Journeys," an old man from the countryside visits a new county official, begging for help. The old man has been working all his life for the same family, now dead or missing. The only son has traveled the world, collecting objects which he sends to his mother. After her death, the objects continue to arrive, and the old servant and his assistant must sell off the furniture to create a museum for these stuffed animals and birds, miniature paintings from Persia and the Mughal Empire, and antique weapons of war among other things. The final gift is the one which the old man loves most, but it requires a great deal of maintenance. He begs the official to accept the other valuable objects in exchange for allowing him to preserve this one final gift. The servant and the official live in different worlds and have difficulties communicating.
"Translator Translated" is quite different. Prema Joshi, returning to her high school for Founder's Day, meets Tara, the brightest and most popular student at the school. Prema, a teacher, has been studying Oriya, her mother's language, particularly the work of Suvarna Devi, unknown beyond her hillside village. Tara, now a publisher of the work of previously unknown female writers, asks Prema to translate Suvarna Devi's first work, and every aspect of Prema's life changes. The second work by Devi, a novel, however, is trite and clichés -ridden. "I saw that what was needed was for me to be inventive...and create a style for the book...I decided to take liberties with the text." The results are predictable, and the effects on Prema Joshi's modest life are significant
"The Artist of Disappearance" tells of Ravi, an adult living in the burned remains of the family home. As Ravi's story evolves, his sensitivity to the world around him becomes clear, and his understanding of aesthetics regarding the natural world is particularly sophisticated. Ravi has created a hidden garden which represents the essence of beauty. At the same time, a group of young videographers is traveling the mountainside looking for examples of environmental despoliation. Ravi, too, finds his life permanently changed.
The importance of beauty and the problem of which beautiful aspects of the past deserve to be saved for future generations permeate this collection. Who should make the decisions about what, if anything, to save? How much beauty should be local? How should artifacts be preserved? As Desai explores these ideas in prose of almost crystalline purity and concision, her sensitivity to the idea of "less is more" prevails. Mary Whipple