Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

by Geoff Dyer

Arlene Almas: As the title suggests, this book has two distinct sections. The main character in both is Jeff Atman, a journalist whose specialty is the art world. In the first section, he is is Venice in 2003 for the Biennale, a massive display of art which takes place every two years, to write about it for a magazine. The writing is very witty, self-aware, and absolutely current - think what fun you can have watching hundreds of artists, collectors, art critics, and journalists browsing the galleries, meeting and greeting one another, hooking up, and carousing all night!

The second section is completely different, taking place in a city in India where the deceased are brought to be cremated on funeral pyres on the banks of the Ganges River. Despite what it sounds like, Varanasi is not a depressing place at all - in fact, it has the character of a huge fair where people from all over the world come to see the temples and absorb the spirituality pervading the atmosphere. Of course the poverty of the residents is obvious, but both adults and children take an entrepreneurial approach as they offer to act as guides. Jeff is there ostensibly to write a short piece on the city, but impulsively decides to stay for a few weeks. This second section is a bit like a psychedelic light show: Jeff meets people, makes friends, takes boat rides up and down the Ganges, interacts with the local impoverished children, and lives a life completely different from his normal one in almost every way. The reading is little hard going at times, but if you let yourself flow with it, it will take you to Jeff's inner life in this unique place.
Rating: *****

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