A discontented middle-aged writer has a passionate affair with an attractive woman he meets at the Venice Art Festival. A discontented middle-aged writer goes to Varanasi to write a travel piece and surrenders to the mystical power of the city.
This précis just about sums up the two stories in Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, but like the book itself it opens up far more questions than it answers. Is the main character in the first story in the book the same person as the one in the second story? We think so, but can’t be absolutely sure. And what is the connection between Venice and Varanasi in any case, apart from the fact that their names begin with the letter “v”?
In an interview he gave on Amazon, the author claims: “both are water-based, old, with crumbling palaces facing onto either the Grand Canal or the Ganges with alleys and narrow streets leading off into darkness and sudden oases of brilliant light. And both, in their ways, are pilgrimage sites.”
This may be true, but the differences between the two cities are probably more important than the similarities: Venice is where people go to have fun but Varanasi is where people go to die. Twin cities they are not.
Probably the best approach to adopt when reading the book is to forget all such questions and lie back and luxuriate in Jeff Dyer’s’s luscious prose. His descriptions of Varanasi in particular are quite remarkable and they powerfully evoke not just the sights and sounds of the city but also its very spirit.
The major weakness of the book, however, it is that in different ways both stories somehow lack something and leave you feeling as if your appetite has not quite been satisfied. In the first one, you long to know why a beautiful young woman like Laura should be so passionately attracted to a middle aged mediocrity like Jeff when she can take her pick from the arts and publishing world glitterati, but this never becomes clear.
As for the second one, I still can’t decide whether its description of the protagonist’s downward spiritual spiral is deep and meaningful or clichéd and superficial – though the fact that I didn’t find myself moved by his plight probably indicates the latter.
Despite the power and lyricism of its prose, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is ultimately a very frustrating book that promises slightly more than it delivers. It’s fine for light holiday reading, but unfortunately it is a little too hollow to reach the literary heights it aspires to.