JEFF IN VENICE, DEATH IN VARANASI by GEOFF DYER

Reading this funny, clever book about Venice and Varanasi, the two ultimate water-based dramatic, atmospheric, crumbling cities, whilst on holiday in Varanasi made the whole experience that much more fun.  If not a little bizarre.

Adding to the deliciousness of it all, I’d literally just read the incident in the Venice section about African sellers of knock-off Prada handbags actually being part of an art installation, when we arrived at Assi ghat on our first morning in Varanasi, to find a Bollywood shoot in full flow.

So the question remains – were the fabulous, wildly photogenic saddhus and holy men for real, or were they from casting central ?

Whatever the outcome, it was a suitable metaphor for this hilarious, entertaining book.

“Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi” is clever, screamingly funny in parts, with the Venice part definitely funnier than the Varanasi part.

There are two separate stories, one taking place in a dramatic, picturesque, crumbling waterside town, and the other taking place in a dramatic, picturesque, crumbling waterside town.

But are the two stories connected?

Ah, that is for you, dear reader, to determine.

The Venice story is certainly funnier and more obviously dazzling, writing-wise. I laughed out loud several times reading the Venice part in Varanasi (oh dear, is this getting too interwoven ?)

In the Venice story we meet Jeff, a middle-aged jaded, freelance writer going on a junket to the Biennale in Venice. There, he meets the gorgeous Laura, who is young and beautiful and irreverent and mysterious, and they embark on a 3 day fling.

Copious amounts of booze, lines of coke and mammoth – nay epic – sex sessions are the order of the day, and then she leaves Venice, and the novella ends with Jeff alone and downcast.

Cut to the Varanasi section.

Here we see the town through the eyes of an un-named middle-aged, world-weary, freelance journalist. Who may or may not be Jeff. We are never told.  But there are enough clever links and references to nudge you into thinking it may well be.

But if you don’t feel that it is Jeff, it doesn’t alter the story in the slightest.

Our narrator goes to Varanasi to write a story for a British newspaper, and just stays on.  He doesn’t make a conscious decision to stay on, just sort of drifts into it, and drifts through his life there, and towards what is possibly his death.

To my delight, when reading this second half of the book, having just watched a Bollywood movie being shot on the ghats, we see that our narrator….yes, you’ve guessed….he also watched a Bollywood movie being shot on the ghats.

So many delicious worlds within worlds.

There are lots of clever little references linking the two halves of the book, be it a dream or bananas (you’ll see why), or a lovely woman whose name begins with L.

As a fellow Brit, I loved Mr. Dyer’s acerbic observations of our country and countrymen.

Here he is describing a sour-tempered Indian shopkeeper in London :

“Behind the counter was a young Indian girl. How old? Seventeen? Eighteen? Gorgeous, though, and with a bright smile, unusual in her line of work. Maybe she was just starting out, taking time off from her A-levels or whatever they were called these days, filling in for her surly father, who, though he spoke little English, had so thoroughly adjusted to British life that he looked every bit as pissed off as someone whose ancestors had come over with the Normans.”

Or Jeff”s hilarious reaction to his own somewhat unexpected use of the clipped word “Quite” :

“You know,” Phil said, as if reading his mind, “flying has never been the same since Concorde was grounded.”

“Quite.”  Where had that “quite” come from? He’d never said it before.  Must have been from reading a John le CarrĂ© novel a couple of weeks earlier. The Circus. Scalphunters. Babysitters. Quite. Perhaps Phil was a spy…”

Mr. Dyer’s power of language is so sublime that a waiter, whom we meet for one fleeting second and never again, has an over-powering personality :

“Even the magnificent fridges of Venice are struggling to cope with the heat and the insatiable demand for cold drinks that it generates,” the barman replied, in epic English.”

After all that possible film-within-a-film feeling in Varanasi, this description of Venice perfectly sums up the deliciously clever mood of this fun, entertaining, but ultimately sad book :

“People were looking out of windows, shouting and waving. Barrows of produce were being wheeled through the narrow streets…Every day, for hundreds of years, Venice had woken up and put on this guise of being a real place even though everyone knew it existed only for tourists.  The difference, the novelty, of Venice was that the gondoliers and fruit-sellers and bakers were all tourists too, enjoying an infinitely extended city break. The gondoliers enjoyed the fruit-sellers, the fruit-sellers enjoyed the gondoliers and bakers, and all of them together enjoyed the real residents:the hordes of camera-toting Japanese, the honey-mooning Americans, the euro-pinching backpackers and hungover Biennale-goers.”

Published by Random House India, the Indian hardback costs Rs 424.  (I have no idea how much the Venice edition sells for…)

To buy the book, simply click on the link below. What could be simpler ?

2 Comments

  1. I bought this book years ago and it’s still lying unread on my shelf! (actually now in a box somewhere in the loft). So i haven’t read your whole post, for fear of any plot spoilers. But will dig it out soon.

    Simran Chawla

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