Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Jeff in VeniceI’ve been a Geoff Dyer fan for some time (is there a better book about being young and footloose in Paris than Paris Trance?) and this one pushes all the Dyer buttons. Riffing on the big issues while indulging in sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, going off on yet another wild tangent (no two Dyer books seem to be related in any fashion whatsoever), but in a style which seems to feature a Dyerism on every page.


The first half of the book follows Jeff Atman (Atman – a Hindu philosophical term to identify the soul), an art critic-freelance journalist on an all-expenses-paid visit to the Venice Biennale. It’s three days of sex, cocaine and Bellinis while whirling past lots of art, old and new. Then crash, it stops, will Jeff ever see Laura again? Who knows.

The second half follows another journalist – it could very well be Jeff, but part two is written in the first person and he’s never identified – on another press trip to another watery city. In contrast to the three hectic days in Venice, trip 2 to Varanasi drifts on, or rather spirals down, heading towards nothingness, perhaps even to death. Spend any length of time in India and you’ll have noticed somebody in that same downward spiral. Incidentally the Hotel Ganges View in Varanasi is the author’s choice in our India guide and other locales – the Lotus Lounge – also feature.

I thought the critics hadn’t liked Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi but in fact Pico Iyer gives it a rave in the New York Times, in the UK The Independent and The Guardian are both enthusiastic and the New Yorker had an interesting Q&A with Geoff Dyer. Annoyingly Geoff spoke at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne in March – annoying because I was in Burma at the time!

holy cow
Amusingly when I looked for photographs of visits to Venice and Varanasi I found this one of Maureen and two of our travel companions when we visited Varanasi in 1972. Amusing because an accident with a cow is a key incident in the book and I’ve had an accident with a cow in Varanasi as well. In 1986 a cow wheeled around in a narrow alley and hit me in the side with its horn, hard enough to fracture a rib. A run in with Hinduism’s holy creature in India’s most holy city cannot be good for your karma

A couple of weeks ago I raved about two books I’d read by Indian author Chetan Bhagat, an excellent introduction to contemporary India. In this week’s Time Magazine Chetan is featured as one of the world’s 100 ‘most influential people.’