Water Worlds

A boho journey from Venice to Varanasi

Written by UMA MAHADEVAN DASGUPTA | Published:March 29, 2009 2:11 pm

A boho journey from Venice to Varanasi
The starting point for Geoff Dyer’s playful,thoughtful new novel,which is really two novellas joined at the hip,is Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Other voices and themes are also interwoven into the fabric: such as Mary McCarthy,D.H. Lawrence,Faiz and in the last line of the novel even the Katha Upanishad. For,one of the themes of the novel is the written word itself. When everything that can be said about a place has already been said,including this statement,what remains to be said?

In the first part,which is essentially a delightful romp through the 2003 Venice Biennale — including Bellinis,cocaine,sex and perfect coffee — we meet Jeff (whose “opinions about art”,we are told,“are not Geoff’s,or not consistently at any rate”),a 40-something freelance journalist visiting the Biennale on assignment. Jeff Atman (we don’t miss the “atman” as in “soul”) may or may not be the narrator of the second novella,which is set in Varanasi. Several elements link the two settings,including old decaying palaces,waterways,boatmen,atmosphere (including a smell) and the epigraph from Allen Ginsberg’s Indian Journals that describes the towers and rocks of Varanasi: “a prospect along the bend of the river,like Venice along Grand Canal…”. Also,the feeling that everything around them is part of one vast throbbing art installation. The stories describe the ways in which the self is transformed,beginning with outward appearances,such as Jeff’s decision to get his hair dyed in London,and the narrator’s decision (more like inertia) first to grow a beard and then to shave it off,as well as all his hair,and wrap a dhoti around his body. He retains his sense of playfulness though. When an Indian acquaintance asks him about the head-shaving,which is a ritual of bereavement,the narrator replies,in a delicious reprise of Chekhov,that he is in mourning for himself. For good measure,he adds some Gramsci: “The new is struggling to be reborn. In this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

In Venice,Jeff meets and has a torrid affair with an American woman,Laura Freeman,a free spirit who travels the world. At the end of the trip,although they go their separate ways,we get the sense that Jeff has been transformed by the intensity of the experience. In Varanasi,the narrator remains celibate,befriending other travellers,looking at art,listening to Indian classical music,and coping with a dreadful stomach infection. He checks out of the plush Taj and checks into the Ganges View which is “one of the great hotels of the world”,among other reasons,because even the rat scurrying behind a wardrobe is a guest too; and because,as the owner explains,“We don’t really know how to run a hotel.”

Whether the Jeff of the first part is indeed the narrator of the second part — “Junket Jeff” off on yet another trip to the exotic East — is not the important question. He may well be. But whoever he is,when he arrives in Varanasi,his life in London could have been on another planet. This is a man on a quest,gradually transformed by his journey,so that he no longer regrets going across to the other side of the river,to the other side of the world itself: “I was glad,now,that I had: it was a reminder that since this life — the one back on the other side,over there in Varanasi,back in the world — was the only one you got,the only real crime or mistake was not to make the most of it…. What was here was the aftermath of life itself,what was left when your time was up.”

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