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‘Solo’ by Rana Dasgupta ***

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.

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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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A Disappointing Novel: ‘The Shadow Land’ by Elizabeth Kostova

‘Soon after arriving in Bulgaria a young American helps an elderly couple into a taxi – and realises too late that she has accidentally kept one of their bags. Inside she finds an ornately carved wooden box engraved with a name: Stoyan Lazarov. Raising the hinged lid, she discovers an urn filled with human ashes. As Alexandra sets out to locate the family and return this precious item, she gradually uncovers the secrets of a talented musician shattered by oppression – and she will find out all too quickly that this knowledge is fraught with its own danger.’

9781911231103I have now resigned myself to the fact that Kostova will probably never again reach the heady heights of The Historian, a book which I have read twice and loved even more the second time around. The Swan Thieves, her second novel, was markedly disappointing, but I did struggle through to the end, something which I could not bear to do with her third effort, The Shadow Land.

The novel is set in Sofia, Bulgaria, a city which I recently visited and absolutely loved. The city itself is not well evoked within The Shadow Land, and neither is Bulgarian culture. Kostova flits back and forth in time to her protagonist Alexandra Boyd’s childhood in the US, using her first person perspective in which to do so, and rendering the present day story in a third person narrative voice. Alexandra’s voice is not at all convincing, and I found Kostova’s writing rather dull in places; even her descriptions are rather ordinary.

The Shadow Land sounded like a promising book, but it failed to pull me in, and it got to the point where I simply could not stand to read more about the very annoying Alexandra. I think it is high time to give up on reading Kostova’s future work.

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Books About Bulgaria

My boyfriend took me on a surprise birthday trip to Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital city, at the end of May.  We had the most excellent time, but I could not help think that I have hardly read any literature set within the country.  I am aiming to remedy that, and have chosen ten Bulgarian books (those either written by Bulgarian authors, or set within the country) to feed into my reading as and when I can find them.  I have copied their blurbs, and will ask of you two questions; firstly, which of them have you read, and secondly, which is your favourite book set in Bulgaria

110762441. East of the West by Miroslav Penkov
‘A brilliant debut from a rising talent praised by Salman Rushdie, among others.  A grandson tries to buy the corpse of Lenin on eBay for his Communist grandfather. A failed wunderkind steals a golden cross from an orthodox church. A boy meets his cousin (the love of his life) once every five years in the waters of the river that divides their village into East and West. These are some of the strange, unexpectedly moving events in talented newcomer Miroslav Penkov’s vision of his home country, Bulgaria, and they are the stories that make up his extraordinary debut collection.  In East of the West Penkov writes with great empathy about 800 years of tumult in troubled Eastern Europe; his characters mourn the way things were and long for things that will never be. But even as the characters wrestle with the weight of history, the debt to family, and the pangs of exile, the stories themselves are light and deft, animated by Penkov’s unmatched eye for the absurd. In 2008, Salman Rushdie chose Penkov’s story “Buying Lenin” (which appears in this collection) for that year’s Best American Short Stories, citing its heart and humour. East of the West reveals the full realization of the brilliant potential that Rushdie recognized.’

 

2. Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria by Kapka Kassabova
Kassabova was born in Sofia, Bulgaria and grew up under the drab, muddy, grey mantle of one of communism’s most mindlessly authoritarian regimes. Escaping with her family as soon as possible after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, she lived in Britain, New Zealand, and Argentina, and several other places. But when Bulgaria was formally inducted to the European Union she decided it was time to return to the home she had spent most of her life trying to escape. What she found was a country languishing under the strain of transition. This two-part memoir of Kapka’s childhood and return explains life on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

 

3. Natural Novel by Georgi Gospodinov 599370
Gospodinov flits and buzzes among various subjects — from graffiti in public toilets to the movies of Quentin Tarantino — in this tale of a young Bulgarian writer who decides to create his own version of a “natural novel” assembled from the bits and pieces of everyday life. At its center is a poignant story about the narrator’s divorce and the fact that he isn’t “the author” of his soon-to-be-ex-wife’s pregnancy. Maybe he’s suffering from attention deficit disorder; maybe he’s just stuck with a skewed if stoic appreciation of life’s messy flux. Whatever the cause, his monologue turns into a quirky, compulsively readable book that deftly hints at the emptiness and sadness at its core.

 

4. The Elusive Mrs Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman
While waiting for a view of her night-blooming cereus, the mild-seeming Mrs. Pollifax received urgent orders for a daring mission to aid an escape. Soon, the unlikely-looking international spy was sporting a beautiful new hat that hid eight forged passports….

 

81846255. Solo by Rana Dasgupta
With an imaginative audacity and lyrical brilliance that puts him in the company of David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon, Rana Dasgupta paints a portrait of a century though the story of a hundred-year-old blind Bulgarian man in a first novel that announces the arrival of an exhilarating new voice in fiction.  In the first movement of Solo we meet Ulrich, the son of a railroad engineer, who has two great passions: the violin and chemistry. Denied the first by his father, he leaves for the Berlin of Einstein and Fritz Haber to study the latter. His studies are cut short when his father’s fortune evaporates, and he must return to Sofia to look after his parents. He never leaves Bulgaria again. Except in his daydreams—and it is those dreams we enter in the volatile second half of the book. In a radical leap from past to present, from life lived to life imagined, Dasgupta follows Ulrich’s fantasy children, born of communism but making their way into a post-communist world of celebrity and violence.  Intertwining science and heartbreak, the old world and the new, the real and imagined, Solo is a virtuoso work.

 

6. Night Soldiers by Alan Furst
Bulgaria, 1934. A young man is murdered by the local fascists. His brother, Khristo Stoianev, is recruited into the NKVD, the Soviet secret intelligence service, and sent to Spain to serve in its civil war. Warned that he is about to become a victim of Stalin’s purges, Khristo flees to Paris. Night Soldiers masterfully re-creates the European world of 1934–45: the struggle between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia for Eastern Europe, the last desperate gaiety of the beau monde in 1937 Paris, and guerrilla operations with the French underground in 1944. Night Soldiers is a scrupulously researched panoramic novel, a work on a grand scale.

 

7. The Making of June by Annie Ward 1536476
At first, June appears to be the ideal California girl-blond hair, blue eyes, a production assistant at a film company, and married to a hot property about to get his doctorate-but she abandons her home and job to follow her husband to Bulgaria. Within a month of their arrival, June turns thirty and her husband leaves her for a young local girl. As difficult as it is for her to be without him and virtually friendless in a country on the verge of civil war, June doesn’t run home. She drinks too much, falls into the arms of a Mafia kingpin, gets caught up in the revolution, and little by little revels in her new vision of the world outside the American periscope. She survives and learns that loss can be an opportunity and that loneliness gives a person time to change her life.  More than just a compelling story, The Making of June offers an authentic portrait of the Eastern European political landscape by an author who lived in Bulgaria for several years.

 

8. Wunderkind by Nikolai Grozni
Life in Sofia, Bulgaria, in the late 1980s is bleak and controlled. The oppressive Communist regime bears down on all aspects of people’s lives much like the granite sky overhead. In the crumbling old building that hosts the Sofia Music School for the Gifted, inflexible and unsentimental apparatchiks drill the students like soldiers—as if the music they are teaching did not have the power to set these young souls on fire.   Fifteen-year-old Konstantin is a brash, brilliant pianist of exceptional sensitivity, struggling toward adulthood in a society where honest expression often comes at a terrible cost. Confined to the Music School for most of each day and a good part of the night, Konstantin exults in his small rebellions—smoking, drinking, and mocking Party pomp and cant at every opportunity. Intelligent and arrogant, funny and despairing, compassionate and cruel, he is driven simultaneously by a desire to be the best and an almost irresistible urge to fail. His isolation, buttressed by the grim conventions of a loveless society, prevents him from getting close to the mercurial violin virtuoso Irina, but also from understanding himself.

 

136683209. A Short Tale of Shame by Angel Igov
After deciding to take a semester off their studies to think about future plans, long-time friends Maya, Sirma, and Spartacus decide to hitchhike to the sea. Boril Krustev, former rock star and middle-aged widower who is driving aimlessly to outrun his grief, picks them up and accompanies them on their journey. It doesn’t take them long to figure out they’re connected to each other by more than their need to travel—specifically through Boril’s daughter, whose actions damaged each of the characters in this novel.

 

10. And Other Stories by Georgi Gospodinov
Wildly imaginative and endlessly entertaining, Georgi Gospodinov’s short stories provide a hint of the narrative complexity of Borges and a whiff of the gritty realism of pre- and post-Communist life in Eastern Europe. These stories within stories and contemporary fables-whether a tongue-in-cheek crime story or the Christmas tale of a pig, a language game leading to an unexpected epiphany or an inward-looking tale built on the complexity of a puzzle box-come together in unique and surprising ways, offering readers a kaleidoscopic experience from one of Bulgaria’s most critically acclaimed authors.

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