Photo: Venice Biennale art event

Geoff Dyer's book is set around the Venice Biennale, a biannual art event.

Photograph by Jimmy Leo

By Don George

April 2009

Book of the Month:
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, by Geoff Dyer

The last time I was in Venice, I fell in with a group of Americans who were talking passionately about the Venice Biennale, a biannual event that transforms the city into a living international art gallery. I resolved to do whatever it takes to attend the next Biennale (which opens June 7 this year and runs through November 22)—but after reading Geoff Dyer's intoxicating portrayal in his new two-part novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, I wonder if the real thing could possibly compare to Dyer's luminous, humorous, 21st-century-art-rave-meets-Old-World-culture-park. I suppose I'll just have to go to see for myself.

Unfortunately, I won't have the services of Dyer's dispirited protagonist Jeff Atman, a British art journalist who's been sent to cover the Biennale—and whose Bellini-fueled adventures offer artful angles from which to appreciate anew Venice's enduring attractions: the canals, palazzos, gondoliers, and vaporetti; the crumbling pastels, illusory waterways, and century-spanning bells. Through Atman, Dyer touches the elusive soul of Venice, the unexpected beauties of glass and grave, the way you can get lost at any minute and then, after wandering for an hour, suddenly appear at the doorway to your hotel, miles from where it was supposed to be. Or the way your long-lost heart can suddenly find itself at the chamber of an American art gallery worker named Laura, especially at Biennale time, when omnipresent art inspires romance—or at least epic, epiphanic lust.

In Part Two of his book, Dyer swerves along a very different path to the holy city of Varanasi, India, where death—not art—is the daily focus. The Varanasi section is told in the first person, by a narrator who probably is the same Atman we encountered in Venice. He has come to Varanasi on an impromptu travel writing assignment, but something in the city ensnares him, and he stays. Varanasi turns into a mirror of Venice—with its own labyrinth of alleys, its watery illusoriness, its unchanging stolidity. Just as Atman lost himself bit by bit to the excesses of the Biennale Bacchanal, in Varanasi he loses himself in the opposite direction, to the physical and spiritual austerities of the place. Dyer evokes the whirl of India—the endless procession to the burning ghats, the sordid and cleansing Ganges, the omnipresence of din and dirt, dung and death, until we are immersed in its implacable embrace.

The novel rockets the reader on a roller-coaster ride through the peaks and depths of sensual and spiritual abandonment-as-fulfillment—and straight into the heart of two of the planet's most enigmatic and seductive cities. What a ride!

New-Book Roundups:
Wars and the Search for Peace

Fernando del Paso's News from the Empire is a dense and hefty novel that depicts the tragic lives of Maximilian and his wife, Carlota, the short-lived Emperor and Empress of MexicoCarpentaria, by Alexis Wright, tells the story of the Aboriginal Phantom family who deal with racism, tribal tensions, and the battle for sovereignty in the rough outback town of Desperance, in Australia. In The House of Bilqis, by Azhar Abidi, a widow and head of a prominent family in Karachi, Pakistan, is crushed to learn that her son is not marrying the woman she has arranged for him, but is instead tying the knot with an Australian lawyer. Her family's turmoil takes place in the 1980s, against the backdrop of Pakistan's own political and social upheaveals.

Facets of India

Tania James writes intimately of both India and New York in Atlas of Unknowns, a novel of two estranged sisters who uncover family secrets as they journey toward reunion. In Thrity Umrigar's The Weight of Heaven, a Michigan couple, struggling to save their marriage after the untimely death of their young son, takes a job in rural India where they experience culture clash and new heartbreak. Haunting Bombay by Shilpa Agarwal is a multigenerational epic and atmospheric ghost story set in lushly described 1960s Bombay.

Photos and Drawings

Book of Cities is a charming facsimile edition of Piero Ventura's illustrated children's book, first published in 1975, that brings 17 major cities—from the snowy streets of Moscow to houseboats in Hong Kong—to colorful life. Photographer Virginia Beahan provides a different view of Cuba in Cuba: Singing with Bright Tears, offering 97 full-page color photographs: still visible mementoes of the Revolution, decaying sugar cane plantations, Hemingway's favorite bar in the fishing village that inspired The Old Man and the Sea. Jon Lee Anderson and Pico Iyer provide complementary essays.

Reading Matchmaker
If You Like Precious Ramotswe...

...check out her tenth and latest mystery Tea Time for the Traditionally Built. Alexander McCall Smith finds new colors in his always affectionate portraits of the intrepid lady detective and her beloved country, Botswana. In this installment, Mma Ramotswe uses her skills to help out the local football team. Fans of course will also know that HBO just premiered on March 29 the first episode of "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency," a seven-episode weekly series based on the books and filmed on location in Botswana.

One Last Thing
The Adventurer as Icon

When I was an impressionable schoolkid, my mother told me about Sir Richard Francis Burton. She portrayed him as an exemplary adventurer who wandered around the world at a time when almost no one traveled beyond their own borders, disguising himself to enter exotic, forbidden cultures, then writing in lavish prose about his encounters and discoveries. I got the feeling that she wished she could have been a female Burton, and in some sense, I'm sure her seed-tales sprouted into the travel writing dreams I have been cultivating in my own disguises for the past quarter-century. So it was thrilling to come across The Collector of Worlds, Iliya Troyanov's newly translated fictionalized re-creation of Sir Richard's exploits in British West India, on the hajj to Mecca, and in East Africa. This mesmerizing novel illuminates the iconic explorer and the world he wandered; it's the perfect present for wannabe explorers, or their irrepressible moms.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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