Jeff in Venice,
Death in Varanasi

A Novel
Geoff Dyer
I had to buy this one from ABE books --- I couldn't get one for free from the publisher --- and after wandering through Part One, Venice, Jeff Atman at the Biennale, him doing coke, crawling in and out of bed with the all-too-lovely Laura Freeman, drinking it up at Haig's Bar, getting back in bed with lovely Laura with the standard gorgeous body along with a standard act of congress ...

Well, after all that I wasn't so sure about the rave reviews I had read.

Finally, thank god, Jeff gets disentangled from her and her arms and randy legs and arrives in Varanasi, India ... once known as Benares. Suddenly from Dearth in Venice and the decadent arts scene everything explodes into life as Jeff comes to spend more and more time at the burning ghats, there on the Ganges: not bodies in bed but bodies dead, the smoke and the stink and the crowds "here for death."

The tourists

    were as keen to see corpses being burned at Manikarnika ghat as the next person --- me, for example, I'd never seen a dead body before, but in Varanasi the procession of death was endless.

§     §     §

The crowds, the filthy kids, the monkeys, the river, the bodies, the smoke, the shit, the driving, the traffic, "the rickshaws, tuk-tuks, cars, bikes, carts, rickshaws, motor-bikes, trucks, people, goats, cows, buffalo and buses were all herded together," along with the gods, and the ways they get about. Much better than the people stuck in Varanasi traffic.

The gods "all have their consorts, and the gods and their consorts all have their own private form of transport:"

    Vishnu travels by eagle (Garuda), Shiva by bull (Nandi), Kartikeya by peacock ... The list and the permutations of the list are endless...

"Garunda occasionally rides an owl or a tortoise. And Ganesh, the elephant, how does he travel? By mouse, of course."

Whether it is Geoff Dyer or Jeff Atman --- the word "atman" in Hindu means, roughly, the soul, the spiritual part of us ... and soon enough Jeff is overwhelmed by India, "the millions of gods," the animals. Atman ends up talking to monkeys, talks to a goat (who tries to give him a ride in a boat), watches dogs eating a dead man, and gets poisoned by a cow.

Shortly afterwards, he dons a dhoti, shaves his head, begins to bathe in the Ganges, despite all the trash and the bodies and the smelly marigolds in their plastic bags. I think I haven't read a better tale of a man being seduced. Not by his lovely in Venice; no, by this whole other culture. And what a culture, what a vision, what a seduction. One that makes us envious.

Atman is no longer the English writer on assignment from the Telegraph, sickened by the carcasses, the filthy kids, the crap everywhere, appalled by all he sees. No, he becomes a part of Varanasi, turns thoughtless (can that be the right word?), a disciple of the otherness that is India.

"Thought bore a curious resemblance to a headache." When he gets sick,

    At first, I'd kept wishing I was better. Then, after a while, my notion of what feeling better felt like grew a little hazy ... If I felt only slightly ill, then I felt perfectly well.

"There was no such thing as being ridiculous in Varanasi. The very idea was ridiculous." It has to do with all the animals, and the human bodies burning in the ghats, the ritual breaking of cadaver skulls, the ashes being dumped in the river, the men chanting.

And gradually, we watch Jeff go crazy. But, then we wonder, is it really crazy, is he any crazier than the guru who sits near the ghats, whispering to himself; or the strange people lolling about: can one be called "crazy" here; or is all "normal?"

The previously laconic Jeff starts talking to anyone who will talk with him, putting off strangers, worrying his new friends, obviously falling off the train, yet making --- at least to the readers --- perfectly good sense as he blithers on, "All of time is here, in Varanasi, so maybe time cannot pass. People come and go, but time stays. Time is not a guest."

Comes a kangaroo, can anyone else see it? A kangaroo that "caused quite a stir, as you can imagine, but, in the hospitable Hindu way, it was immediately welcomed and absorbed into the pantheon of interesting events."

A kangaroo? On the Ganges? Is Jeff Atman totally potty? Or enlightened? Is there any difference?

I bought this one because it got rave reviews in the TLS and the LRB. The New Yorker listed it as one of twenty-two "Best Year's Reading." I was sure during the time Jeff was in Venice that we wuz robbed. Once we got to Varanasi, however, where we heard our first raga, and a note came to be

    stretched out as long as possible and then a little longer; it continued, somewhere, long after it was capable of being heard. It is still there, even now.

After that, I knew we were home.

--- Deb Das
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