Saturday, June 19, 2010

Book Review: Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (Geoff Dyer)

Talk about clever!  In reviewing J.M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year recently, I had mentioned that the 'clever' is probably the best way to describe the book.  Experimentation in narrative technique by a master of the art.  Well, it looks like this is going to be the year of clever fiction reading for me, because Geoff Dyer just pulled off an absolute stunner in genre defying writing.

I have never read Dyer before.  In fact, I hadn't even heard of him till the end of last year.  Then, The Economist and New York Times both selected Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi for their best books of 2009 list.  [See this post for critics' choice books from 2009, a post that I now realize incorrectly has '2008' in its title.]

JV, DV is a book in two parts.  The first is set in Venice.  The setting is that of a major art festival.  Artists, critics and journalists from across the world are gathered in the city.  Party invitations are counted, coke is being snorted, hair is dyed, love is made casually but with an intense, drug-induced sensuality.  The art community, its movers and shakers walk the first half of this book's pages, perpetually high, always looking for free booze, nervously peeping at the party invitations stack of their colleagues, to see if there were other better parties they were not being invited to.  Our protagonist for this part of the book is Jeff Atman, a journalist with a small art magazine (called Kulchur, if you will). 

This is the easy reading, incredibly witty, playfully erotic half of the book.
She was on a slightly higher step, sitting with her feet discreetly together, but as she laughed he caught a glimpse of white knickers that set his heart racing.  The history of sex is the history of glimpses: first ankles, then cleavage, then knees.  More recently, tattoos, navel rings, tongue studs, underwear.  Laura's underwear ... Whenever she shifted position slightly, he hoped to sneak another look up her dress.

Laura said, 'Are you trying to look up my dress?'

'No! Not now.  Now I'm making a real effort to look you in the eye.  But a few minutes ago I was, yes.'

'How old did you say you were?'

'Early to mid-forties-ish.  But some things are timeless.  You're fourteen, you want to look up women's dresses.  You're forty, you want to look up women's dresses.  You're seventy, you've got one foot in the grave, but you're hoping, even as your gaze turns towards heaven, that you might get one last chance for a look up a woman's skirt.  Hemlines go up and down, but nothing really changes.'
See what I mean? 

Then abruptly, but not jerkily, the book shifts to Varanasi.  Dyer has introduced the name before, in his Venice half.
'From the Sanskrit, isn't it?  Nasi, place.  Vara, many.  Place of many names.'

She laughed.  She had perfect teeth, quite large:  American teeth.  'I have absolutely no idea whether that is extremely impressive of completely Ben as in bull, Ares as in shit.  Which means it's probably both.'
So off to Benaras it is.  Dyer takes us on a ride of Varanasi the likes of which you might rarely have seen.  It is detailed, colorful, unflinching, achingly real.  We see the ghats, the circle of life.  We see the holy men, the crooks, the monkeys.  We see Varanasi through the eyes of an Englishman, a journalist.  If this journalist is the same as Jeff from the first half of the book is never made entirely clear.  He might be.  Or not. (And, you start wondering to yourself, it can't be coincidence that Jeff's last name is Atman ...)

As light hearted and carnal the first half of the book is, the second is ponderous and spiritual.  Now, we are no longer in a novel.  We are in a travelogue.  A story, a painting, of Varanasi.
Thanks to Kerouac, Ginsberg and the Beats, notions of karma and dharma had become common currency, but words like moksha, bhakti and rocana were new to me.  Terms like these didn't lend themselves to straightforward translation because they were ideas that did not have an equivalent in our limited western consciousness.  One concept that did make sense was darshan:  the act of divine seeing, of revelation.  This was what Hindus went to the temple for:  to see their god, to have him or her revealed to them.  The more attention paid to a god, the more it was looked at, the greater its power, the more easily it could be seen.  You went to see your god and, in doing so, you contributed to its visibility; the aura emanating from it derived in part from the power bestowed on it.

[...] Here in Varanasi, the ill-informed tourist did not see the same city that the thousands of pilgrims saw, the pilgrims who came here and the ones who lived here.  But this was not to say that the visitor was not capable of his own form of darshan.  Even if I didn't know what I was looking at, I could still see.  And if ever somewhere was designed with the eye in mind - there was probably a Sanskrit term meaning exactly eye-in-mind - then Varanasi was that place.
If the Venice part of the book is incredibly good, the Varanasi portion is positively divine.  And in juxtaposing two such hauntingly powerful yet entirely different pictures right next to each other, Dyer forces the reader to think about the contrast, the interplay.  At one point, Dyer describes an exhibition of pictures in Varanasi thus:
The absence of people was not a universal principle.  People were there or not there, there in some pictures and not there in others.  A hand-out said that all the photographs had been taken in India, but there were no individual captions, nothing to tell you where anywhere was, or what anything was, or when it had been.  There were just these pictures of places, pictures of places that were in these photographs.  There was nothing to help you get your bearings and then, after a while, once you accepted the idea, you realized that you didn't need these things that you so often relied on, that there were no bearings to get.  A given picture had no explicit or narrative connection with the one next to it, but their adjacency implied an order that enhanced the effect of both.
That is probably the best way to describe this entire book.

After much thought, I had chosen Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi to be my 'transition' book, the book I will start reading in the US and finish reading in India.  With it's structure where the first half of the book is the West and everything moves East midway, it seemed perfect.  Having read it now, I couldn't be happier with my choice.  Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is an absolute cracker of a book, certainly one of the best I have read this year.  Geoff Dyer is a must read author.  With this book, he has made a compelling argument - I have to read everything he has written.  Tathastu.

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