Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 8, 2011

Solo, by Rana Dasgupta

SoloSolo, by Rana Dasgupta, won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best Book award in 2010, and deservedly so for many reasons.  It’s a compelling tale and highly imaginative but it also explores some confronting truths about the much-lauded end of Soviet communism.

Dasgupta is British-Indian, but is really a citizen of the world with an international outlook.  He spent his childhood in the UK but has studied not only at Balliol College Oxford, but also at the  Conservatoire Darius Milhaud in Aix-en-Provence, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison. These days he lives in Delhi in India.

His choice of setting for Solo, however, is primarily Bulgaria, not exactly a place familiar to most western readers.  I admit to checking out its exact location and a bit about its history and politics on Google, and I bet I’m not the only reader to do so.  Not that it’s necessary to do this, I hasten to add, it’s just that reading the novel made me interested in Bulgaria, its capital Sofia and the St Nedelya Church which  makes an appearance in the story.  I had a bit of a look at Tbilisi too, but the intricacies of Georgia’s recent history are as bewildering now as they were when we heard about them in the media during the break up of the Soviet Union.  One of the achievements of this novel is that it puts a human face on the turbulence of this period of history.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

It’s the story of 100 year-old Ulrich and the ‘triumphant failures’ of his life.  Blind now, and dependent on the goodwill of a neighbour, he looks back over his inconclusive attempts to achieve something worthwhile.  All his efforts are inconclusive – even when he goes to a brothel to lose his virginity he abandons the idea because he’s intimidated by his friend Boris’s confidence and prior experience.   Ulrich’s father frustrated his early talent with music; and he had to cut short studies in chemistry when the family business failed and there was no money to pay the university fees in Berlin.  He resumes a dull life in Sofia with a dead-end job at a leather factory, and although he tries to experiment on his own he’s in a scientific backwater and gets nowhere.  When Soviet bureaucrats finally put him in charge of a factory he is subject to their hopelessly unrealistic targets and he also falls prey to their obsession with surveillance in a particularly poignant error of judgement.

His relationships are inconclusive too.   Coming home from Berlin, he leaves behind a girlfriend, Clara Blum, marries unwisely, and loses all contact with his only child.   A tentative friendship with a married woman called Diana comes to nothing, and his friendship with Boris is compromised by their differences over politics.  Bulgaria’s turbulent political transitions catastrophically affect not only this important friendship but also separates him from his mother, Elizaveta, physically as well as emotionally.  All this takes place in what is called The First Movement, characterised by a calm narrative voice revealing Ulrich’s memories and his acceptance of life’s disappointments.

The Second Movement however is more brutal.  It fractures into the stories of new characters who seem unrelated, each of them struggling to come to terms with the political and social upheavals of post-Soviet life in the new republics of Bulgaria and Georgia.  As Tom Cunliffe has pointed out in his review at A Common Reader

[In] this section we see what life is like when a nation effectively hands over control of their economy to wealthy oligarchs, who create states-within-a-state, with massive security organisations and networks of similarly-rich tycoons who stitch up markets in their own interests.  The “common-good” falls by the wayside along with those who fall foul of them, the latter having an invariably nasty end.

It takes a little while to work out that this section is magic realism: it’s a prophetic day-dream in which Ulrich re-engages with lost relationships, creating an alternative truth for his largely insignificant life.  There is a poignant meeting with Clara, and he meets Boris, now a musician so successful he can ignore the music mavens of corporate America and in this incarnation he is both Ulrich’s lost friend and his vanished son. He has another son called Irikla, a doomed poet; and a daughter too, a wild-child called Khatana who ruthlessly avenges the thuggery which blighted her childhood and uses her experience as the moll of a Mafia-type mogul in Georgia, becomes a highly successful adviser on security for America’s paranoid executives.

Ulrich is not much bothered by the strange lives his ‘children’ lead in the 21st century.

‘They are not the children I thought I would have,’ he thinks.  ‘I always imagined I would produce people more civilised.  But a confounded man like me, living through such a mess – it’s not surprising if my offspring carry a few scars.  They’ll have a better life than I did, and things will smooth themselves out. Their children will be better than they.  In a couple of generations they’ll give birth to angels, and there’ll be nothing left to show what bad times we sprang from’. (p348)

It’s tempting to wonder (in the light of books like The White Tiger) if Dasgupta is also commenting on the social changes in India’s rise as a global power, but I liked this unexpectedly optimistic conclusion.

There’s an enthusiastic review at The Guardian and another at the Seattle Post.  Rana Dasgupta has his own website with notes about the book here.

Author: Rana Dasgupta
Title: Solo
Publisher: 4th Estate (Random House)
ISBN: 9780007312771
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings $27.99

Availability: Fishpond Solo (now $10.88 AUD!!)


Responses

  1. this is second review in few days I ve seen of this Lisa ,I ve had this on radar for a while ,partly due to the wonderful cover which is very eye catching ,I like sound of this and fact he looking back on his life reminds me a bit of Peter Carey’s illywhacker in that regards ,all the best stu

  2. A fine review, and thanks for the mensh – I am immensely pleased. This is obviously an author to follow. It was a very unusual topic for an Indian author wasn’t it.

    • Hello Tom, thank you so much for recommending this. I think he’s an exciting new voice, doing something different with such finesse. Winston compares him to Peter Carey, and you to Salman Rushdie – high praise indeed! I wonder what he’ll write next? Lisa


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