on Solo, a novel by Rana Dasgupta (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Born in Canterbury (his mother is English), Rana Dasgupta has been living in Delhi for the past decade but does not speak Bengali (his father is Bengali). He studied French literature at Oxford and earned a graduate degree in Media Studies at the University of Wisconsin. He worked for a marketing consultancy in Kuala Lumpur, fell in love with a woman from Delhi, quit his job and went to India to write. He seems to be the embodiment of – and has been preoccupied with -- the lyrical proposition that a man neither here nor there is everywhere.

DasguptaCover.jpgThe pivotal location of his beguiling first novel, Solo, is Bulgaria’s capital Sofia, a place barely registered in the Western mind – on the fringe, unnewsworthy, rumored to be located somewhere between London and Kolkata. But Sofia is a most suitable site for Dasgupta’s purposes, since an obscure man living in such an umbral land takes the full brunt of the world’s failures and incursive forces. He is too porous. In the twentieth century, Bulgaria suffered through the demise of other people’s empires, two European wars, a stillborn democracy, waves of fascism and communism, and finally, the rule of global consumerism.

Living alone in penury above a bus station in Sofia, a blind man named Ulrich, “nearing the end of his life’s tenth decade,” remembers. He can recall the day government agents knocked at his door to return his dead mother’s possessions, confiscated twenty years earlier:

“This miraculous event contradicted everything Ulrich thought he knew, and he felt he had lived too long. He had seen the statues pulled down again and again – this time they were putting up shrines to Ronald Reagan – and everyone around him had passed away. He was living in the aftertimes, whose rules he did not understand. Forty or fifty years, he thought, were enough for a modern life, for the human frame could not hold up if the world was destroyed too many times and made again.”

Dasgupta.jpgPassive, feckless and uncommunicative (yet not entirely so), Ulrich has lived like a cork bobbing on history’s tides. His time has always been the aftertime because the essence of any present moment eludes him. Power is wielded by whoever arrived earlier. (Ulrich is also the name of the main character in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, set in 1913 Vienna. Musil’s Ulrich is famous for feeling diminished in an ambiguous world.) Dasgupta’s Ulrich is curiously unresponsive to others and lacks a certain skill in reading social cues. His mother had cried, “I am full of thoughts, you know, full of feelings. Do you realize how lonely I am, living like this?” Ulrich offers no response, but he is not dispassionate. His marriage crumbles, he loses contact with his son, he suffers for this rupture. He emits a “pleading air, which he has always detested in himself,” a man who has brooded “on what was taken away.”

One day he meets a married woman named Diana: “He did not tell his mother about Diana, and never invited her to his home. It was an indefinable thing, only slightly beyond what would bear scrutiny by the world. Sometimes they just wandered along the grassy railway tracks, so they could be together. But they never called each other by their first names.”

I hear this delicate observation as a keynote: against the brutality of history, let’s simply admit that an ordinary life is lived only slightly beyond what bears scrutiny. A foreground thinly inhabited by Ulrich’s poignant smallness discloses the ferocious foreshortenings of history.

“Life,” the first of two “movements,” narrates the events of Ulrich’s existence, occasionally returning to the present where Ulrich sits alone or is cared for by a neighbor. As a child, Ulrich shared his mother’s love of music, but his imperious railroad-designing father smashed his violin. A young adult, Ulrich pursued his studies in chemistry in Berlin where Einstein and others were shaking up the world. But his family’s distress (the father returns crushed by WWI) necessitates his return to Sofia where his closest friend Boris mingles with socialists who are picked off by the rising fascists. When the Russians take Bulgaria, Ulrich works until retirement as a manager in a chemical plant producing highly toxic barium chloride. He refuses to join the party. Later, foolishly mishandling sulfuric acid, he destroys his corneas.

Dasgupta writes, “The friction of Ulrich’s memory, moving back and forth over the surface of his life, wears away all the detail – and the story becomes more bland each time.” But Ulrich is not the narrator. Solo’s speaker is a fabricator of an imagined life – he valorizes fabrication over everything else. It is as if he is building a story to substantiate Tony Judt’s statement in Postwar: “Unlike memory, which confirms and reinforces itself, history contributes to the disenchantment of the world.”

DasguptaTight.jpgThe voice of Solo enchants because, unlike Ulrich’s memory, it is not bland or smudged. Solo is the fabrication of a representative, staggered memory of our age. Its tonal restraint and bluntness of statement, learned from eastern European writers like Milan Kundera, is aligned with Ulrich’s temperament. Yet this brisk chronicle of events triggers a deeply moving effect. The materials of Solo are impressive, a century’s worth of Western turmoil efficiently pictured through a single life. But its manner of speaking tells us: use an unsentimental, candid eye to perceive the relationship between a man and his time. You are as obscure as Ulrich. Listen and take measure of our diminishment and our powers.

At this point, we are half way through the novel – since the second “movement,” “Daydreams,” describes Ulrich’s fantasies. The action occurs in Tbilisi, New York and Los Angeles. There are Khatuna and Iridlis, brother and sister; she is a crude opportunist, he is a depressive, frustrated poet. In Tbilisi, she becomes attached to the city’s most powerful, post-Soviet businessman. In New York where she has a management job with an architectural security firm, her lover is a high-powered music executive who signs up Boris, a gypsy-trained, free-spirited, Bulgarian fiddler. Boris becomes a worldwide sensation. The world here is in capitalist ascent/freefall; the view is magical-satirical. But the reported deaths in the daydream have a familiar removed quality.

But “Daydreams” is powered by a boom market’s winner-take-all rapacity. Expropriating the energy of the media-and-market-driven West to inflate its own gratuitous existence, the daydream thrives. The Boris of Ulrich’s youth becomes Boris the indomitable, ecstatic, unshackled violinist. This section unfolds like an HBO drama: the plots of episodes, spiked with action and violence, remain unfinished; the pacing is broodingly languorous despite sharp-edged cutting. Once established, the characters play up to their own identities. They don’t develop, they persist. Only fiction obligated by epiphanies must evolve characters towards crises of awareness. In the world of Solo, the surface absorbs meaning and depth.

Although Solo is not a prescriptive novel, it strives to provide a footing for our imagination while history is busy destroying and repaving the ground beneath us. The novel is an extended échappée de vue -- a gap in an obstacle affording a view. The insignificant appears as otherwise. Dionysian Boris plays on, an ineffable, temporary tonic for worldly illusions. The interior life has a sad grandeur. Kundera told us that “everything will be forgotten and nothing will be redressed.” Rana Dasgupta tells us someone is always remembering, however feebly, before the forgetting is complete.

[Published February 1, 2011. 339 pages, $25.00 hardcover, $9.99 Kindle]

Listen to Chris Lydon’s lively conversation with Rana Dasgupta at Open Source.

Dasgupta

Thanks, Ron, for drawing my attention to this. I must order this book for me and my husband. So glad to be in contact with your site. Kathryn

Solo

What an excellent review! Yet again I feel the urge to get a book
I'd not have otherwise suspected I had to get.