Anita Desai's new book is her best since Fasting, Feasting and shares the apocalyptic vision of her extraordinary Fire on the Mountain. India's greatest living writer has always hidden devastating criticisms of the status quo just beneath the jewelled seduction of her surfaces. Her new volume, a trio of linked novellas about the art world, is also a sequence of underground detonations, culminating in a physical explosion that tears apart a mountain – and at a stroke demolishes the 21st-century's corrupt linkage between art and celebrity. These stories about art are also stories about ourselves. The characters, sketched in with Desai's usual blend of irony and tender sympathy, are people who look at pictures and read books: the rich who collect and neglect art, the civil servants who fail to support it, the adapters and critics and publishers who cluster round the edges, their restless jostling muddying and blurring its outlines. Last of all, but most beautifully, in her final story Desai writes about the secret part of all human beings that can create no matter how wretched our circumstances, a precious gift she suggests must at all costs flee the roaring, vacuous maw of 21st-century media.
All three novellas feature different forms of disappearance. The first, “The Museum of Final Journeys”, is narrated by a failed writer and junior Indian administrative officer, the privately educated inheritor of British imperial traditions: irritable, hierarchical and bored.