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An ill fitting wrapper around some weapons grade thinking
on 26 March 2014
This book effectively contains two related novellas featuring the same protagonist, Jeff, a London arts critic and writer. The first half recounts a short assignment to the Venice Biennale, written in the third person. The latter half is a first person account of his elongated stay in Varanasi. Both halves riff on common themes, many of which relate to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.
I was sorely tempted to put this novel down having only read the Venetian segment, thinking that the best thing about it was the punning title. The art world that Jeff orbits is only slightly more superficial than his daytripper-level insight into the city. The references to Mann are there –the older man colouring his hair to recapture youth, the obsessive lust for a distant figure– but they only serve to illustrate that this novella is deeply reductive. There are some nice passages and amusing turns of phrase but it felt pretty lightweight and I found myself alienated by the insincerity of the characters and the affectations of the writer. Another north-Londoner writing about just how clever and cosmopolitan north-Londoners are, I thought.
I underestimated Mr Dyer. He plays on the same themes in Death on Varanasi but uses it as both a critique of the society he has already described and Jeff’s angst-ridden participation in it.
Relocating the themes to unreconstructed Varanasi allows Dyer to show just how synthetic Jeff’s concerns and passions were in Venice. The ennui and lust that enveloped Jeff when he was there may have echoed those of Mann’s Aschenbach but just as the city has over the 20th century become a theme park for those rich in money and cultural capital, so the people and their concerns are cartoons.
The revelation of little details in Varanasi, like Jeff’s lack of education in the classical arts, serve to skewer both Jeff and the society in which he has thrived. How can a man with no understanding of the history and language of art be a nationally recognised art critic? Relatively easily, when the art community itself values those things less than the parties and the international travel and, ultimately, the cultural cache of being part of that elite community.
Stripped of the consumerism and pretention of the first-world at the beginning of the 21st Century, Jeff undergoes a striking transformation in Varanasi far more redolent of Aschenbach. First world problems give way to issues of self and spirituality. The reader’s tolerance for this kind of introspection and the travelogue style narrative will very much decide how much they enjoy this half of the novel.
I’m deeply conflicted about this novel. I reacted deeply against its first half and found the conclusion unsatisfying. The plot is inchoate, the characters –with the exception of Jeff- are sketches and long passages feel like they’ve fallen out of a travel guide. Yet beneath this veneer is some weapons grade thinking about society, culture and their relationship with the individual.