I find it hard to imagine two more fascinating cities than Venice and Varanasi. While New York, Paris, Prague, Mexico City all have their attractions, if I had quickly to choose one place to spend a week it would likely be a choice between the Vs. So when I happened on Geoff Dyer’s new book I knew he was writing for me. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is a pair of novellas, intricately linked, yet totally separate. In the first Jeff Atman [sanskrit for one’s true self ] is in Venice to write about the Biennale for a British journal. Venice and the art world form the backdrop to a week of Bellinis and cocaine, quick trysts with famous art and an alluring stranger. A vaparetto map of Venice is useful in keeping track of their watery peregrinations, hitting all the highlights of Venice, and many of the more subtle aspects such as the cemetery island of Ste. Michelle. They constantly cross over cultural hotspots, what will be known in hindusim as tirthas. Varanasi being one of the most powerful of all tirthas.
The first half of the book is bright, fast, funny, sexy- always moving, day and night barely recognized. Yet he realizes that he is missing something. The San Rocco school and its Veronese painting of the crucifixion present him with a
everybody in the painting he was looking at was looking at the crucified Christ, even the two thieves who were getting crucified alongside him, even people like the guy on the horse, who was looking at something else. Atman didn’t know how long he sat there, staring at this painting, not having any thoughts about it, willing on an epiphany that never came, never happened, just seeing it, looking at. Perhaps that was the epiphany, surrounding himself to
what he was seeing.
The second novella is contemplative, thoughtful, and sexless, with repetitive movements space through a spiritual landscape. He wanders down to the cremation ghats:
the whole operation at Manikarnika was really labor-intensive, like one of those Salgano photographs of peasants toiling on the mountainside – a mountainside, in this case that had been so thoroughly worked over that it was
no longer a mountain . There were great stacks of wood, higher than houses, forever getting added to and denuded as logs were weighed out to fuel the never ending need for fires. Barges arrived, crammed with logs that were carried to
the shore, so big that only one or two could be carried at a time, slung like animals, stiff and heavy, over the shoulders of the men carrying them. The wood was stacked, chopped, weighed and carried down to the water again, probably
weighed again. Each cremation required a ton of wood.: Ton in the sense of a lot, not a specific unit of measurement. Smoke smudged the sky, blackening the temples and buildings crowded around the fires. Cows chewed on soggy marigolds, picking picking through the ash that the rivers dark edge. The water was sooty and dark, burned. Some dogs were there too. Half a dozen fires were burning, tended by the men who worked ther. People were standing around talking while, all the time, wood was lugged back and forth and fires were prodded with branches. It was like watching the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, as it might have occurred if Berenice no industry and a vast surplus manpower, all employed in the service of death.
He had planned to spend only a few days in Varanasi, and though he tried to wander alone he he realized that was impossible: By the time you have shown the first flicker of interest in doing, seeing or buying anything in India,
someone will have read the signs and acted on that, will be trying to turn this wish – for interest is a wish, desire, and, as such, constitutes demand – into a reality, to his or her financial benefits. I only learned this later
while during the tourist itinerary starts to slip outward cover the city and as advising. He ends up staying for weeks stretching to months:
I bought a couple of the little candle coracles, lit them and watched them wobble and float away . They were lovely, and it was lovely, at first, being on the crowded water in the faded light, waiting for things to begin. Almost as soon as it began, though, the ceremony became disappointing. You didn’t have to be a particularly discerning tourist to see that this was an exhausted pageant, drummed up for tourists, a son et lumiere with a cast of hundreds. Any significance it was supposed to have had been drained, possibly a long time ago or maybe just yesterday, or even now, right before our eyes. The event had bled itself white, but each night it had to bleed afresh, which only
made it seem more stale and bloodless. It was like trying to glimpse, in a performance of The Mousetrap, the ravaged majesty of Macbeth. The air was frantic with others, dense with harshly amplified chanting, the sound of conches
and the clamor of bells. I left before the and, before it had even got going
· Varanasi is filled with small temples at every turning
shortly after this I found myself outside Temple – I didn’t know which one, but that was not the big one Vishwanath, with all the airport security: metal detectors circuits. That’s why there are so many soldiers around: because
Vishwanath the Golden Temple, and the mosque were practically on top of each other goading the faithful, inciting them to live in peace. It was the old neighbors from hell scenario, raised to the level of intense theological
principle and proximity. There is no God but God, says that one place there are millions of them says the other. The fact that were able to get along for years did not mean that, at the drop of a hat, they would not be at one another’s
As he observes the manner in which definition becomes obscured , a similar process affects his life:
I noticed a small blue shrine, the size of an emergency phone on the side of the motorway. in the middle of the shrine, where the phone would’ve been there was an orange blob, a worn shape.. Within the general roundness, it was
possible to make out the lump of the body and the smaller lump ofa head, but more rounded, less defined than a Henry Moore version of any God. Who was it ? Ganesh? It could’ve been any of them. There was not even residue of definition, but this did not suggest that its power had diminished or been shrunk; the sense was that its essence had become more concentrated. The feeling was not of erosion or diminution, but of withdrawal. The God, whoever it was, had retreated into itself. By reducing it self almost space to nothing, by coming so close to that which could not be identified as,, it had become more nakedly itself. I felt sure of this, even though I did not know who is what I was seeing.
The two parts of the book are completely separate yet it’s impossible to read
without making connections at every turning of a page