Friday, January 6, 2012

Three From a Master

Anita Desai has been an acclaimed fiction writer for nearly fifty years, and I'm embarrassed to say that the only Desai book I have ever read is by her daughter Kiran (“The Inheritance of Loss”). So her latest book of three novellas – The Artist of Disappearance – seemed a good place to start.

The three stories, all set in India, have no characters or settings in common, but they deal in different ways with the same theme – the survival of art in a world where traditional and modern cultures clash. In each story a member of the modern community is exposed to art (and in two cases an artist) from a more rural or traditional milieu, and is forced to make decisions about its fate.

Desai lets these stories unfold slowly, painting the fascinating landscapes of rural India as she subtly fills in her characters' complexities. I liked all three stories but I was especially moved by “Translator Translated” in which a mediocre university professor finds new richness in her life when she translates a work by an obscure author she admires, but then must face the consequences when her ambition distorts her judgment.

Desai asks hard questions and gives no simple answers. Her prose is lucid, understated and a pleasure to read.

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