Deborah Levy, in conversation with Anita Desai at the May 2013 Sydney Writers’ Festival, alluded to the apt and oft-stated comment that Desai is a quiet writer. But, she added, Desai is only quiet if one is not listening properly. I admit that I can sometimes be an inattentive reader. My literary education has ended up focusing on the macro, on things that jump out, demand to be noticed, are suggestive of trends. And Desai’s writing doesn’t do this on the surface. But I found The Artist of Disappearance fascinating in a couple of ways.
This short book consists of three novellas, or long short stories: “The Museum of Final Journeys”, “Translator Translated”, and the title piece. Desai is one of those writers who was writing in English in India long, long before it was common. Her first work dates to the early 1960s, a good couple of decades before Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, that epic work of magic realism that made it internationally known that Indians did, indeed, write in English. Aside from being of a different generation to most contemporary Indian English-language writers, Desai’s long-spanning career puts her in a different category of analysis to them. There is very little in common between the work of Desai and Aravind Adiga, or Arundhati Roy, or Anjum Hasan. But she is certainly not an anomaly, as there are striking similarities between her work in The Artist of Disappearance and other established female Indian writers who write in languages such as Bengali or Malayalam or Hindi. And I don’t just mean in terms of content–though the predominantly rural or small-town settings of these novellas do suggest this–but in terms of style, too. Desai’s acclaimed quietness, her subtlety and realism is also clearly evident in the work of writers such as Anita Agnihotri (Bengali), Bani Basu (Bengali) or Indira Goswami (Assamese), and many others (see Kali for Women’s Truth Tales or The Slate of Life, or the second volume of Tharu and Lalita’s Women Writing in India for brilliant introductions, if you need them). I’ve encountered such work in English translation, through collections of Indian women’s writing, and while it is always a tricky thing trying to make comparisons between a text in its original language and others in translation, I do believe it is more than just coincidence that links Desai’s fiction to these older, established writers in various Indian languages. There is a common ethos evident.
The middle novella in The Artist of Disappearance was one the one that I found most exciting, but there are personal connections that lead me to say this. Other readers are likely to find the characterisation of the frumpy, slightly miserable literature teacher-turned-translator in “Translator Translated” charming and amusing, but I may be the only reader who laughed out loud with excitement over this story. This was my PhD topic condensed into a novella! With some of the drier, more theoretical aspects of feminist theory left out, obviously. The said protagonist, Prema, meets an old school friend, Tara, at a reunion, who was at the peak of a successful career as the head of India’s first feminist press (Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon rolled into one!) Prema’s PhD research had been on the work of an Oriya woman writer who lived and worked amongst the tribals of Orissa (a less fiery Mahasweta Devi!) Prema ends up translating some of this writer’s work into English for Tara’s publishing house so that it can reach the audience that she thinks it deserves (my Chapter Two!) At a literary conference Prema and Tara are faced with that inevitable, important, but ultimately unproductive question:
‘What made you decide to translate these stories into a colonial language that was responsible for destroying the original language?’
Blank, blank, blank.
Then, blinking, and under an expectant stare from Tara, she stammers out the words, ‘But the stories–the stories prove–don’t they?–it is not destroyed. It exists.’
A flash from Tara’s dark glasses, approving, encouraging. So Prema goes on: ‘And isn’t the translation–the publication of the translation–a way of preventing it from–ah, loss? And proving it exists to, to–the public?’
‘What public are you addressing?’ The pudgy map adopts a more belligerent tone now that he had found the person at whom he can direct it. ‘The English-speaking world?’ he asks rhetorically. ‘The international public? Why? Doesn’t it already have a readership here?’
‘Isn’t it–isn’t it important,’ Prema flusters on as if she were one of her own students being interrogated, ‘to make it more widely known?’
‘To whom is it important? To the writer? To the reader? To what readers? Here in Hindustan? Or in the West? Employing a Western language indicates your wish to win a Western audience, does it not?’
Things go a little bit wrong in Prema’s new translating career, however, when her ego takes over. I found this a fascinating story, connecting so many strands of my own research as it did–women’s writing, feminist publishing, language issues in India. At the Sydney Writers’ Festival sessions in which Desai appeared, she was, predictably, asked about her own language use, but if I’d been interviewing her I would have loved to ask whether in this story she was intentionally parodying the literary scene that she invokes, or whether it was simply a vehicle for her to address the questions of translation in a multi-lingual environment.
(The Artist of Disappearance, Noida, UP: Random House India, 2012, paperback)