Rana Dasgupta was awarded the Commonwealth prize recently for his mammoth novel, Solo. Solo, is the kind of novel that overwhelms you when you hold it in your hand and as you sink into it, it takes over with a kind of morbid fascination that compels you to keep turning the pages to find out where the storyteller will take the tale.
Set in Bulgaria, a country that has been culturally and politically isolated since the World Wars, the story opens with a blind 100 year old man, Ulrich, who lives alone in an apartment in Sofia. The entire narrative is his life, his failed life which is analogous with his country which has failed too.The narrative is the story of the 20th century which has failed some countries while the others have spurted past.
The scale of the novel is epic in its expanse, both the time span it encompasses and the perspective. The novel is divided into two halves. In the first half we get to know the story of Ulrich who had promise as a musician and a scientist in his early life, but through fate and circumstances was destined to end up a nobody with a failed life, a failed marriage.
He lives out his final years, blind and alone in a cramped apartment on the busy streets of Sofia, keenly aware of the cacophony of street sounds which intrude on his reflections. His neighbours care for him, and his mind is on its on journey through his past and into the future.
It is the ordinariness of Ulrich's life which is what makes the narrative fascinating. The story flows into the past where we see Ulrich growing up in a prosperous Sofia, where his parents have great hope for him, except that his father is violently against his love for music. This has a parallel with the state where communism blanked out all forms of cultural heritage, including music.
His father becomes a shell of man post his experiences in the wars, and Ulrich goes to study chemistry in Berlin in the 1920s, and unfortunately is compelled to return home to a job at a factory. His marriage fails, and his wife moves away with his son. His mother is sent to a labour camp and returns traumatised. Ulrich becomes a star worker in the great five year plan of the state and works until retirement, where he is handed a golden watch for his years of service. He accidentally blinds himself with acid. Whis is the catalyst for his daydreaming in his dark world. The book moves into part two. The second half of the story follows three youngsters with no apparent obvious connection to Ulrich. Boris, a gypsy, Khatuna, a gangster's mistress and her brother Irakhli, who is a poet and whose poetry makes an appearance through the second half which is set in New York. Ulrich walks into their lives, where he also meets up with his long dead first love from Berlin, a Jewish girl who was killed in the holocaust.
Solo is a strange, haunting and powerful book. It takes ordinariness, shakes it, dissects it and presents it to us for our consumption. Solo, the title, comes from the protagonists life, which is a metaphor for all our lives, which will end, solo. Add to this brilliant writing which takes us through 100 years in a country's history through the eyes of an individual.
Reviewed by Kiran Manral