7 February 2010

Travelling Light

GEOFF DYER, 51, has made a career of wry, elegant transitions between places and subjects, says TRISHA GUPTA

GEOFF DYER is the sort of man one instantly thinks of not as lean but as lanky. He is all arms and legs, a physical awkwardness that seems entirely in sync with the deadpan expression. Reading from his recent novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (2009), Dyer remained poker-faced as the Jaipur audience roared with laughter at his (or rather, Jeff’s) existential encounter with a monkey in Varanasi, or his lifeand- death battle with the man in the ATM queue. It’s never clear, in writing or in life, whether Dyer is being entirely serious — or entirely not. The monkey episode, for instance, while side-splittingly funny, allows for a revealing segue into the lack of a boundary between men and animals in Varanasi. “English kids have cuddly toy bears, or go to zoos, and as John Berger writes, animals in zoos are monuments to their own near-extinction,” says Dyer. “Real animals [in the West] are seen as dirty, unhealthy. So a city shared between animals and humans seems to me fantastic, unusual — and a bit revolting.”

Dyer’s sharp-eyed observations on Varanasi bear out one of his pet theories: that one needn’t understand everything about a place to write about it. But unlike DH Lawrence — his hero, who was once described as writing only about the state of his own soul — Dyer insists that place “has been overwhelmingly important” to him. 1980s Brixton was where he began to see himself as a writer, and set his first novel, (The Colour of Money, 1989) while Out of Sheer Rage (1997) travels to all sorts of places in Lawrence’s footsteps. Dyer has been peripatetic in other ways too, moving from literary criticism to fiction to writing about jazz (But Beautiful, 1991). Recently he’s been writing on photography (The Ongoing Moment, 2005), which he calls a town he is tempted “to stay put in”.

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