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Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

books Updated: May 21, 2012 15:03 IST
Riddhi Shah
Riddhi Shah
Hindustan Times
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Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi
Geoff Dyer
Randomhouse | Rs 395 | PP 291

Remember the Maggi ketchup advertisement, the one with Pankaj Kapur and Javed Jaffrey that always ended with ‘It’s different’? Admittedly, this is not an original or a literary descriptor for a book as inventive and creative as Geoff Dyer’s. But that’s how I feel about his third novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi.

The novel, which follows protagonist Jeff Atman — a cynical and unhappy British journalist — as he journeys across Venice and Varanasi, is a slow, meandering story of loss, redemption and the ultimate discovery of the ‘eternal truth’.
The recurring theme through the book is that of rebirth — of former selves that die, and the new selves we quickly adopt, leaving behind the old.

In he beginning, Atman (a pun on atma perhaps) is embittered, insecure and lonely, in search only of the next free glass of Bellini and a gram of coke. But when he meets the witty and waif-like Laura, while on an assignment to cover the Venice Art Biennale, he is rejuvenated. Their conversations are the stuff of Woody Allen films: (“Why, I oughta…” “It’s funny, no one says that any more: ‘Why, I oughta’. We should start a campaign to bring it back”. “You’re right. We oughta”.).

And their love affair is ethereal and spellbinding, brought to life by Dyer’s description of the tragic romance of Venice. (“He was alone in Venice. She had gone and he had gone from Plus One to Minus One. There was nothing to do except stroll, so he strolled through the crowded, empty city... One moment he was in a busy, densely populated area and then he was in completely silent streets, deserted except for sunlight.”)

When she leaves four days later, he finds himself on the water’s edge, unsure and unable to go on. In the second part of the book, we meet yet another avatar of Atman. This time he’s in Varanasi to write a travel piece, and his rebirth comes in the form of spiritual emancipation. Instead of leaving the city after a week as planned, he stays on interminably, being tossed, turned and remodelled by the temples, monkeys and sadhus of Varanasi, like driftwood in the Ganga.

Eventually, Atman manages to rid himself of all desire and lets go of the ego. The story ends, not entirely unexpectedly, on the water’s edge. But this time around, there’s no fear, only the acceptance of the timelessness of things.
Despite the book’s clearly metaphysical theme, this is no run-of-the mill self-help story; instead, its spirituality — subtle, funny and quietly self-effacing — takes you by surprise.

It is Dyer’s familiarity both with Venice’s decadent and hedonistic art world as well as Varanasi’s decaying mysticism that lends to his writing a rare authenticity. His prose is lyrical and delightful, if on occasion self-serving and indulgent. At times, the free-associative monologues become boring. You stop caring about Atman’s thoughts on the exact colour of Laura’s underwear and just want to know what happens next.

But it is the dialogue and self-reflection that sparkles. Dyer’s ironic and incisive writing ought to strike a chord with the current generation, with anyone who is caught between the polarities of materialism and spiritualism. If you’ve experienced the life of all-night partying and drinking, but are still seeking to the understand the ultimate meaning of life; if you’re smart, funny and enjoy good conversation, this book is for you.