Saturday, May 23, 2009

The journey from selfish to self-aware

Geoff Dyer is a writing chameleon. He has tackled subjects as diverse as jazz, travelogue, D.H. Lawrence and photography in his perceptive writings. His intent gaze has settled for a more meditative subject in his latest book, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi.

The book, as its title indicates, is divided into two parts, each devoted to one of the great riverside cities of the world. It opens with an account of Jeff Atman, a smart, but bored, arts journalist, in Venice to cover the Biennale arts exhibit.

We see the city through Jeff's eyes as he troops from one event to the next, always on the verge of an epiphany. The writing is rock solid as you feel Dyer's perspicacity (he has covered the Biennale twice) in Jeff's ways of seeing and being.

Jeff meets Laura, a journalist from Los Angeles, and begins a sort of anonymous affair. They meet at various events and end up swilling bellinis, snorting coke and having sex. Through Jeff, Dyer captures the very occidental habit of trying to locate tiny moments of pleasure in a life essentially devoid of meaning.

It is in contrast to Venice's Jeff that we meet the unnamed narrator of the second half. In all respects, this man is Jeff, except we are never sure because Dyer doesn't tell us so. A journalist sent to write a travel piece on Varanasi, he ends up staying in the city.

There is something magical about his attraction for it, a magnetism devoid of possessiveness, a love so magnanimous it threatens to strip existence of its banalities and discover its life-denying, yet life-affirming, center. Toward the end, the narrator has gone completely native, with a dhoti and bald head, losing all desire for worldly objects, even sex partners.

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi
is an interesting juxtaposition of two world views, refracted through the eyes of arguably the same person. It makes no judgments, yet in its evocation of a metaphorical death, the book pays heartier tributes to the East than it does to the West.


This review appeared in St Petersburg Times.