Reading this funny, clever book about Venice and Varanasi, the two ultimate water-based dramatic, atmospheric, crumbling cities, whilst sitting in Varanasi made the whole experience that much more fun. If not a little bizarre.
Well, to be honest, I read the Venice section in Varanasi, and the Varanasi section once I was back home in Delhi, and by then able to say “Ah yes, the Ganges View Hotel” and ” Of course, Assi Ghat,” having just visited them.
Adding to the deliciousness of it all, having literally just read the incident in the Venice section about real life African sellers of knock-off Prada handbags actually being part of an art installation, we arrived at Assi ghat on our first morning to find a Bollywood shoot in full flow.
So the question remains – were the completely OTT, utterly 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 definite 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 what is basically 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 on our country and countrymen.
Here he is describing a sour-tempered Indian shopkeeper in London :
Or Jeff”s hilarious reaction to his own somewhat unexpected use of the clipped word “Quite” :
His power of language is so sublime that a waiter, whom we meet for one fleeting second and never again, has an over-powering personality :
And as for this description of Venice – well, after all that possible film within a film feeling in Varansi, with possible saddhus posing for the Bollywood cameras, this seemed to sum up perfectly the deliciously clever mood of this fun, entertaining, clever but ultimately sad book :
Published by Random House India, the Indian hardback costs Rs 395. (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 ?