Monday, August 24, 2009

Tales Of Two Cities

This was written a few months ago for a newspaper supplement that stubbornly refused to materialise.

Geoff Dyer

Is Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi one novel or two novellas? The separate parts of Geoff Dyer’s new work seem unconnected, but reflection reveals that there are enough links – both of incident and theme – to loosely bind them together. Besides, V.S. Naipaul essayed a similar structure decades ago with In a Free State, his stories of strangers in strange lands.

The first part of the novel introduces us to Jeffrey Atman, a 40-plus disgruntled journalist travelling to Venice to cover the Biennale, the much-anticipated art festival. Jeff mingles with bitchy, Bellini-drinking crowds, analyses exhibits and starts a passionate affair with Laura Freeman, a curator from Los Angeles. After scenes of sex, drugs and decadence, and some tips of the hat to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Jeff stares out into Venetian waters, hoping for an epiphany.

The second part, narrated in the first person, again features a disaffected journalist nearing middle age – Jeff, or one of his avatars – who arrives in Varanasi on a magazine assignment. Here, the pace is not frenetic as before; there are many descriptive passages, some very well done, some akin to written-up journal notes of a first-time trip with ghats, pyres, filth, festivals and colours. The narrator allows the sacred city to seep under his skin and cancels his return journey, passing time through interactions with other visitors, long walks, boat journeys and dips in the Ganga. Thus, he attempts to find a mantra for the rest of his life.

The yoking together of two cities defined by bodies of water is ingenious, and Dyer’s prose is mellifluous, blending barbed comments and insights. The book’s flaneur-like progress may not be to everyone’s taste, but the moods it conjures up – from the rajasic to the sattvic – are well worth the price of admission.

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