I chose to read Rana Dasgupta’s novel Solo for the Bulgaria leg of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge. I went to Sofia on holiday last year, and absolutely loved it; it’s probably the only capital city I have ever visited which has not succumbed entirely to tourism, and it still felt rather authentic. I have read very little set in the country though, and was very much looking forward to this novel in consequence.
Solo, which was the winner of the ‘Best Book’ category of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2010, is blurbed as ‘a book about lost roots, broken traditions and wasted endeavours – and the exquisite ways in which human beings overcome them.’ Salman Rushdie deems it ‘a novel of exceptional, astonishing strangeness’, and most of the other reviews which I have seen when scrolling through blogs and Goodreads have been largely positive.
Solo, in its first part at least, centres upon a blind chemist named Ulrich, who is ‘reaching the end of his life’s tenth decade’ in Sofia. This has caused him to comb through his life: ‘He has no wealth and no heirs, and if he has anything at all to leave behind, it will be tangled deep, and difficult to find.’ He lives in poverty, helped by his neighbours who ensure that he is fed and has company for at least part of each day. ‘The absurdity of [his] name,’ writes Dasgupta, ‘can be blamed on his father, who had a love affair with all things German. Over the years, a lot of time has gone into explaining it.’
We first meet Ulrich as a child; when his father forbids his love of music, for reasons not explained until much later in the novel, he makes friends with a boy at school named Boris, whose father has a laboratory in the family home. He begins to embark on an exploration of chemistry, and it soon becomes a large part of his life: ‘The teenager who laboured there believed he would chance upon something that would change the world forever.’ Whilst relatively well off when he is younger, taken on many foreign trips, and living in a luxurious house, Ulrich’s fortune changes when his father goes off to fight in an unnamed war, and he is left in Sofia with his mother. The family have to move to a smaller home, and uncertainty begins to rule their lives. When his father returns, ‘his left trouser leg was rolled up and empty, and his ears were damaged by the shells’. Rather than feel the pity for his father which is expected of him, Ulrich struggles with his emotions: ‘… he found it hard not to blame him for having returned so unlike himself, and over time he began to punish him in countless insidious ways.’
Dasgupta’s prose is beautiful, and it has such depth to it. He recognises from the very beginning the tumultous position of Bulgaria in the wider world; it has belonged to both Europe and Asia, and is a melting pot of differing influences and customs in consequence. The historical context which is given is rich and textured. Dasgupta’s descriptions of Ulrich’s loss of sight are sensitively wrought, and appear to be highly understanding of the character’s plight: for instance, ‘The shape of the world changed when Ulrich lost his sight. When he had relied on his eyes, everything was shaped in two great shining lone rays. Without them, he sank into the black continuum of hearing, which passed through doors and walls, and to which even the interior of his own body was not closed.’
Searching and introspective, the precise and haunting story within Solo which focuses upon Ulrich is a wonder to read; he is presented as a believable and three-dimensional protagonist. Dasgupta slowly leads his reader through a life lived against rather an unstable social and historical backdrop. Whilst the first part was often achingly beautiful, I felt that the novel lost momentum somewhat when other protagonists were written about later on. These characters had not been introduced until at least a third of the way through the book, and it felt rather jarring to tear myself away from Ulrich’s story and become invested in those of others. This structure detracted rather a lot from Ulrich and his plight, and had Dasgupta focused solely upon the first protagonist here and carried his story throughout, I would more than likely have loved it.
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