TO ATTEMPT to write about a mythic place, a place only as real as the many representations of it, is ambitious. To attempt to write about two such places — and in the same book — seems almost foolhardy. But Geoff Dyer pulls off this impossible task with élan. His newest offering, the mischievously and memorably named Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, serves up both a perfect postmodern Venice (“the city that never disappointed and never surprised, the place that was exactly like it was meant to be… exactly synonymous with every tourist’s first impression of it”) and a strangely affecting tourist Banaras that is equally about commerce and death (“It was like arriving at the world’s first-ever seaside resort… in serious need of repair, but its popularity… undiminished. Whatever else had happened to Varanasi, it had never fallen into ruin — and never would…”)
In keeping with Dyer’s predilection for genre-defying books — seemingly nonchalant marriages of fiction and nonfiction (But Beautiful on jazz) or autobiography and cultural theory (Out of Sheer Rage on DH Lawrence) — what he gives us here is actually two novellas. The first revolves around a middle-aged British journalist called Jeff Atman who goes to Venice to cover the 2004 Biennale. The all-pervasive haze of cynicism around Junket Jeff (as one acquaintance addresses him) is punctured by falling in love-lust, on his first night in Venice, with the lovely Laura. This section is a highly tongue-in-cheek reworking of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. If Mann’s Aschenbach is austere, serious and overwrought by his work, Dyer’s Jeff is clever about and disparaging of everything — including himself (“However much he despised other people, when he did the math and added things up, Atman always found himself more despicable still”). The first thing we learn is that “the morning’s work had bored the crap out of him”; even his enthusiasm about the Biennale is reserved for the ceaseless bellinis and cocaine.
There is, however, a degree of selfawareness about Jeff (who is not Geoff, though one feels they might have stuff in common) that makes him almost endearing: “It was pathetic, it was unbelievably immature, but even now, aged 45 and counting, Jeff felt his heart sink when he heard that someone… had been having more fun than him”. Or when, transfixed by an exhibit, he is “glad that he’d seen it right at the beginning of his tour, before he became punch-drunk, sated and oblivious.” And his observations are often spot-on, as when he conjures up the cocktail of outrageousness and stark ambition that characterises the art world: “The work may have been puerile, but the hunger to succeed of which it was the product and symbol was ravenous. In different historical circumstances any number of these artists could have seized control of the Reichstag or ruled Cambodia with unprecedented ruthlessness.”
The pleasures of the flesh that engorge the Venice section are replaced in the Varanasi section by the exact opposite — the sensory excess outside seems to result in an inner quiet, a contemplative emptiness, even a lack of desire. The central figure, also a journalist (nameless, he might or might not be Jeff Atman), arrives in Banaras for five days to do a piece for a London paper, but ends up staying for weeks, maybe months, settling into a rhythm of doing not very much except watching dead bodies burn and eating pancakes at the Lotus Lounge. Even with the ubiquitousness of the bizarre in Banaras, his transformation from baffled tourist to semi-permanent resident who shaves his head and dresses in a dhoti is both unexpected and eerie. As are the serendipitous connections, constantly evoked, between the cities. This is an arresting book, but not always an easy one. As the protagonist puts it when he first sees Banaras, “There was uncomprehended meaning everywhere…”