“Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi” review

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi
by Geoff Dyer (Goodreads Author)

Patricia‘s review – Sep 24, 2012

It was amazing
Geoff Dyer begins his fictional travelogue of two diverse cities with a wry account of a jaded journalist’s experience of the Biennale in Venice, where every two years the international art world gathers for festivities. While preparing for his trip at home in London and trying to once again assume an interest in the Biennale, Jeff impulsively decides to dye his hair. The male hairdresser punnily quotes Sylvia Plath: “Dyeing is an art like everything else. We do it exceptionally well. We do it so it looks real.” Fortunately, he stops there, rather than continuing with the next line from “Lady Lazarus”: “I do it so it feels like hell.”

Revived by the transformation, and pleased with his hair’s natural look, Jeff realizes he had made little progress in the last decade and a half. Still, the rejuvenation puts a spring in his step and surprisingly allows him to catch the eye of the amazing Laura, a fellow visiting journalist with whom he rapidly progresses from romance to explicitly sexual, ecstatic encounters in Venice. Renewing his enjoyment of Venetian charms, including cafes, wine, cocaine and Titorettos, he misses his chance to plan another encounter with his new lover before its possibility becomes remote.

In the second part of the book, what may well be the same narrator agrees to an assignment, flying on short notice to the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi, India. For the greater part of this narrative, he is alone among thousands of pilgrims who come to the holiest of Indian cities with great extremes in personal wealth vs. poverty, health vs. illness, life vs. death.

“Everything that happens in India is a parable, even if the parable is unclear…there is no such thing as a pyrrhic victory, there are only pyrrhic defeats.” He, like all of the other journalists his editor assigned to cover this city before him, becomes violently ill with some sort of wracking intestinal bug, doubtless due to the layering of feces, animals and dead humans on the ghats and promenades of the city. He watches the main tourist attraction, the ritual burning of the dead on floating funeral pyres, accompanied by floating candles and cows munching the wilted remains of flowers.

Dyer’s evocative prose, snips of philosophy and eye for the telling image/symbol are not for the squeamish or the prudish, but his observations while he finds and loses himself in two watery cities are vivid and genre-bending.

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