I don’t think I’ve ever done this before–checked out other reviews before writing my own comments on a book. Just a thing I have about testing my own insights. In the case of Artist of Disappearance, however, I made an exception because I knew that Anita Desai is an author of some renown, and whatever impression Artist was to meant to leave on the reader escaped me.
The plot, like the book itself (156 pages) is slight. A young Indian boy named Ravi is left alone with a servant in a Himalayan mansion by neglectful parents. The servant, a blind old woman, starts a fire which destroys the house. The boy lives on to adulthood in the ruins as a hermit, constructs a secluded garden which no one ever sees or disturbs until an urban film crew invades the area seeking to document environmental ruin.
The crew discovers the garden, but doesn’t know what to make of it and can’t find its creator for an interview. Eventually they are distracted by more filmable events, and, one supposes, Ravi returns to his seclusion.
According to reviews, Artist is one of a trilogy whose dominant theme is the constant threat, even impossibility, of maintaining privacy in today’s society. It’s setting in an India ravaged by British invasion adds dimension to the theme.
However, this is not my kind of book. As in Sunset Park, the book I reviewed a few days ago, most of the novella consists of summarized events that occur offstage. Not until about two-thirds of the way through the book does the reader get an actual scene. By then, because we never got acquainted with Ravi, I couldn’t sympathize with his plight. I never understood why he wanted to remain alone, never got inside his head or heart. Desai just puts it out there like a sign: This Man Is A Hermit. And we are apparently meant to understand from that how threatened he feels by trespassers of any stripe. I can see an argument that the garden represents his inner self and that no one has the right to appropriate it for their own uses. But unless we get a sense for the why and how and the creator’s emotional attachment to the garden, we have a hard time identifying with his fear and trembling.
Or maybe I’m just too insensitive to wrap my heart around it. That’s probably it. At any rate, I wish Ms. Desai and her readers well, but I won’t seek out the other parts of the trilogy.