Anita Desai ruminates on art and memory, illusion and disillusion, and the sharp divide between life’s expectations and its realities in three perfectly etched novellas. Set in India in the not-too-distant past, the stories’ dramas illuminate the ways in which Indian culture can nourish or suffocate. All are served up with Desai’s characteristic perspicuity, subtle humor, and sensitive writing.
Overwhelmed by their own lack of purpose, the men and women who populate these tales set out on unexpected journeys that present them with a fresh sense of hope and opportunity. Like so many flies in a spider’s web, however, they cannot escape their surroundings—as none of us can. An impeccable craftsman, Desai elegantly reveals our human frailties and the power of place in The Artist of Disappearance.
1. “The Artist of Disappearance” is the title of one of the book’s novellas. It is also the title of the book. Why do you think the author decided to use this title to represent the entire collection? What different expectations might you have had if the book were titled The Museum of Final Journeys or Translator Translated?
2. In this book, the author has put together three individual novellas about people in isolation, either by force or by choice, as they explore the power and limits of art. In what ways are these stories alike? How are they different?
3. Although there are certainly moments of joy and pleasure for each of the main characters in the three novellas, each is singed with the main character’s disappointment or discontent. Which resonated with you as a reader the most—the high or low points of these characters? Do you think the author is more successful at making you feel her characters’ highs or lows? Is your answer the same for each character?
4. The scenes of this book take place in India, both in city and rural locations. Do you think this book could have been set in any other country? Are the stories universal enough to translate into other settings, or do you feel too much of the unique culture would be lost, resulting in an altogether different book?
5. In the second novella, “Translator Translated,” the author changes points of view between characters and also varies between third person and first person as well as past and present tense. How does this affect your reading of the story? What do you think went into the decision to cast certain passages in certain styles?
6. At the end of “The Museum of Final Journeys,” the narrator admits that, years later, he sometimes has regrets. “Could I have done more?” he wonders (Page 40). Why didn’t he? Do you think he will ever check on the museum that once interested him? Why or why not? If you were in his shoes, would you?
7. In “Translator Translated,” Perma sees the publication of her translation as “the crowning moment of her life” (Page 68). This was around the middle of the novella. Having read through to the conclusion, do you believe it really was her crowning moment? Discuss the importance Perma gives to her publication with the group.
8. Do you believe Perma had the right to take the liberties she did with her translation? What might she have done differently? Describe how her publisher, Tara, handled the situation. Do you agree or disagree with her response?
9. In the conclusion of “Translator Translated,” the scene is ripe for conflict when Perma runs into the brother of the author whose work she rewrote in translating (Page 92). Instead of a conflict, they have a pleasant exchange. What does this say about the two characters? Why did the story have to end this way?
10. Perhaps the most complex novella of the book is the title story, which weaves together the stories of Ravi, a recluse who lives in the ruins of his family’s home, and a film crew coming to the area to shoot a documentary. Whose story was it easier for you to relate to as a reader? Whose story do you believe more closely reflects your own world view?
11. Ravi’s character seems a bit difficult to pin down at first. What did the author do to help you, as the reader, better connect with Ravi, the protagonist of “The Artist of Disappearance?” Did your opinion of him as a boy differ from your opinion of him as an adult?
12. Do you believe Ravi will return to his glade? Or will his obsession with matchbox “constellations” become his new occupation? Discuss the similarities between Ravi’s infatuations with each. Which one do you believe better fits his nature?
13. To end the final novella (and the book), the filmmakers find the “perfect ending” to their documentary. Instead of the artful ending of Ravi’s glade, they gravitate to the dynamite explosions and workers with shovels and pickaxes excavating the hillside. Why do you think the filmmakers (and the author) chose this scene to end the documentary, story, and book?
14. Each of the novellas features a grand work of art that, at one point or another, becomes the focus of the main character’s attention: a museum, a translation, a garden. How are these works alike, and how are they different? Compare and contrast the relationships between character and art in each novella.
15. Anita Desai is a critically acclaimed and widely read author. Have you read any of her other books? If so, how did it (or they) compare to this one?
Discussion questions written by Ally Peltier.
© 2011 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt