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Book Review: Solo by Rana Dasgupta

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A blind Bulgarian chemist sits alone in his flat, sweltering in the Sofia summer heat. As he approaches his 100th birthday, his still sighted mind’s eye inevitably ranges over a 20th century that brought constant revolution, both to him and to Bulgaria. He is Ulrich, the focal point of Solo, this kaleidoscopic, mesmerising, breathtaking novel by Rana Dasgupta. It’s not hard to see why it has won so many plaudits (including the 2010 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize).

Two comments made to him as a young man have haunted Ulrich. The first is from his domineering, self-made father:

“You are privileged enough, at a young age, to enjoy the society of talented and influential men — and all you can do is stammer and scratch, and hold your foot in your hand like a fool. You will not be a failure, my son. Whatever it takes, I will not allow it.” (p15)

This was the father who built railways as a passionate, ideological believer in their potential for great good; who loved all things Germanic (hence the gift to his son of a very unBulgarian Christian name); who suppressed his early love for music by the wholehearted, modernistic fervour of the late industrial revolution. But he ended up a broken man after witnessing his beloved creations blown up or exploited in the cause of military advantage. There’s a potent parable, just there. But it is his son who tells the story. Before he dies, having lived his life alone, he needs to leave a legacy. As his old friend Boris had said, “One day I will die. And you will die as well. All these thoughts in our heads will disappear.” (p24)

Ulrich too showed an early love for music, and some of his closest friends were musical; but his father raged against this by throwing his violin in the fire. The different colours produced by the instrument’s chemical components in the flames sparked a new passion: chemistry (pp19-20). And so he goes to study it in Berlin, during its Weimar heyday and as the Nazis begin to flex their muscles. This was the occasion of the second comment, albeit a passing one — but by the book’s close, it is clear that this incident is still perplexing him decades later:

“When Ulrich picked up the papers that Albert Einstein had dropped behind him in the corridor, the scientist looked him in the eye and said, ‘I am nothing without you.’ Ulrich managed to say, ‘Nor I sir,’ as Einstein turned his back and ambled on. Ulrich has thought back so many times to this moment that the figure in the corridor transmuted into something more than a man. Now Einstein looks down on him with eyes that scan like X-rays, and his speech comes not from his mouth but from somewhere invisible and oracular.” (p47)

And thus the book’s themes are set in motion: how do you measure a life; how do you value it; how do you decide what is success or failure? Dasgupta takes a 100-year-life as a poignant prism for understanding the whole century — for Ulrich has survived modernity in some of its successes and horrors, through the extremes of anarchy, fascism, communism, and capitalism. And Bulgaria is the perfect vehicle for such a narrative, straddling the fault-line between Asia and Europe, having been an Ottoman colony and then a Soviet satellite, and now of course an EU member state.

Bulgaria’s world was convulsed every couple of decades – where old truths were ruthlessly replaced by new ideologies. This is most graphically illustrated by the regular erection and destruction of heroes’ monuments.

“The former villains were cast in bronze and put up in the parks, and all the stories changed. The paintings of Geo Milev, who had been executed as a traitor, were now put on the postage stamps, and his poetry was taught in schools, while the old murdered prime minister, Stamboliiski, was given a statue outside the opera house. The newspapers claimed it was the Communist Party that had saved the Jews from the fascists, and everyone was speechless with the audacity of it — when it was still so recent and everyone could remember how it really was — but memories altered to fit the books, and many things passed into silence.” (p97)

“In their frustration, they pulled down the statute of Lenin in the town square. Boris was shocked, for the old man had always pointed to the future, and with the other hand he had gripped his lapel in a permanent way. Now his outstretched arm had broken off, and it was hollow inside, and he lay unclaimed on the ground. Boris wondered whose job it was to clear fallen statues away.” (p187)

But Solo is immensely rich. It is symphonic, interlaced with many interweaving themes that are hard to summarise — which seems entirely appropriate because of the importance of music to so many characters. But a novel should be far more than what one paltry article can summarise. For in its compliation of memories, images, snatched conversations and experiences, a novel at its best can convey a life. As in fact can a piece of music, albeit differently. There is a beautiful description of Boris being being transfixed by a Gypsy violinist:

“But Boris loved his new teacher, and nothing could keep him away. Slavo said, ‘Now we’ll play an hour of our lives.’ He raised his violin and played the things of sixty minutes. The colours, the thought. The unclipped nails, the oval pool of vision. The time, the need, and the sounds that break through from beyond. The book on the fence post. The other person drawing close. The normal emotions, the thing-at-hand, the body’s suck and pump. He did it in a couple of moments, which was another part of the feat.” (p186)

The book’s two halves are simply entitled “Movements” (1st: “Life” pp 1-168 & 2nd: “Daydreams” pp169-351). The first movement seems more classically structured, more or less a chronological memoir of a solitary man who knows he doesn’t have long to live. But it is only half the book. Embarking on the second movement initially gives on rather a bewildering jolt — new characters and new challenges, but in ever so slightly familiar contexts. The more one reads, however, the clearer Dasgupta’s purpose becomes.

For these daydreams (which feel just as real as the first movement) are Ulrich’s jazz-like riffs on his own life. Their different stories are all variations on his experiences, the places he visited (or wanted to), the ambitions he held. And they all gradually converge as Ulrich himself enters his daydreams to engage with these characters. They are like his children (and thus expressions of his agonised grief for the young son he has not seen since his ex-wife Magdalena emigrated to America). He’s aware that it is all a dreamworld (indeed he is reminded of the fact by Clara, an old Berlin-days friend who died in the Holocaust, but who meets Ulrich in old age in the New York she dreamed of visiting.

Just like listening to great music, part of the reader’s real enjoyment comes from trying to spot where the themes are reprised or reshaped. One’s mind casts back to the “Life” Movement to pinpoint what sparked this or that dream. (It reminded me a little of that stellar moment in The Usual Suspects when Customs cop Dave Kujan suddenly clicks that Verbal Kint’s “evidence” has been entirely inspired by everyday items in his office.) Here are just a handful of examples:

  • There is the story of Khakana in Tiblisi, Georgia (where Ulrich and Magdalena went on honeymoon) and her marriage to a post-communist oligarch (who echoes a TV news report that Ulrich hears in his flat)
  • The rather wonderful metaphor of the world’s countless computers daydreaming in screensaver mode, preempting half a book of a blind man’s daydreams
  • There is the great Bulgarian folk violinist Boris making it big in the celebrity world of New York (a riff on the political agitator who’d been Ulrich’s best friend and brother-in-law, and then killed by fascists)
  • The artful play on that archetypal man-made substance, plastic (Clara had been a chemist whose ambition was to investigate its properties; the Simon Cowell-like New York producer who ‘discovers’ Boris the violinist and brilliantly manufactures his celebrity is appripriately enough called ‘Plastic’)
  • The fleeting reappearances of a Blüthner piano
  • Then, one of the most striking images, the museum-like semi-intact remains of town submerged for eight decades by a reservoir, only to be re-exposed to the elements when the dam is decommissioned  (which is evoked by Boris walking through his deserted town after the local factory is closed.)

And so on. There are plenty more to spot. But to reduce the book to a few jazz riffs is to trivialise its profundity.

For both Ulrich and his father to have suppressed their musical passion for scientific and technological endeavour is not surprising in a century that valued utility and purpose over artistic and individual expression. What is equally unsurprising is their naïve optimism about their work (which is a feature of all ideological idols).

“For Ulrich’s father, there was no calling more noble, more philosophical, than the railways. As he dreamed, his moustache trembled with the snaking of glinting rails across continents. Next to the churches, synagogues and mosques he saw new edifices hatching roofs of steel and glass, and departure boards unfolding within, full of the promise of discovery. In the ecstasy of his reverie, he hovered above the cartoon face of the planet, now wrapped in twin lines of steel and given over, finally, to science and understanding.” (p10)

This is echoed by Ulrich’s early passion for chemistry — but experience tempers his idealism. For it was at a railway station that he said goodbye for the last time to his ex-wife and young son. Chemistry would have the same double-edge:

“A long time ago, Boris and I had a debate about chemistry. I said it was the science of life and he said it brought only death. Now I see that our views were simply two halves of the same thing.” (p111)

The communist authorities in Bulgaria decreed that the country would become a global hub for the chemical industry — the reason Ulrich ends up in a leadership position in a factory (despite never finishing his Berlin degree). But his eyes are at last opened on retirement. The environmental legacy was (and still is) catastrophic. And it is a bitter irony, that in time, his own blindness would be caused by chemicals.

“Released from his own chemistry, Ulrich realised that Bulgaria had become a chemical disaster. The rivers ran with mercury and lead, and hummed with radioactivity. Fishing had dried up on the Black Sea coast, and every year more fields and forests were lost.” (p159)

The ecological disaster seems a metaphor for the centuries ideological disasters as well. Individuals no longer count or belong, as forces far greater even than nation states buffet them relentlessly. As Boris powerfully argues with the apolitical Ulrich:

“The truth is there in your own household and you cannot see it: nations are steel boilers pitching madly with our soft flesh inside. I cannot think of anything that was not much better when we were just a territory in the empire, scratching our backsides for entertainment. And it will not be better again until we have abolished this Bulgaria and all the other killing machines.” (p34)

What Boris didn’t live to see, however, was the way that fascist, communist and capitalist all squeezed the life out of individuals. Ulrich has come to see that clearly, as he expresses it both in his memoir and daydreams. To that extent his is a truly post-modern voice, rejecting the certainties and one-size-fits-all mentality of a dying era. He is one of the century’s survivor. But is this because he has travelled solo (sometimes because of his introverted temperament, sometimes because of being abandoned by those closest to him)? None of his human attachments lasted… except in his daydreams. But what is a person? Are not the dreams and ambitions of the heart every bit as much a part of a life as real-world achievements and activity? That seems to be a key question that this book is posing.

So we return to the comments that haunted Ulrich. On the face of it, in worldly terms, his life has indeed been a failure. He failed to complete his degree. His marriage failed. His dreams of becoming a great chemist came to nought. Even when he experiments at home, he is way behind the developments taking place everywhere else. His career ends with very little to show for it. And years before, he remembers taunting his aged father:

“Ulrich took advantage of his father’s deafness too. He found perverse satisfaction in whispering insults in his ear: ‘You whipped your son so hard into success, and look what he has become. He has come back to this godforsaken place, and now he’ll never be anything at all. Your son is a failure. How bitter your disappointment must be!’” (p68)

But as the Solo’s First Movement concludes, Ulrich reflects. His sense of self seems to have been diminished by a blurring, a merger with the natural world (a very eastern mindset, that). It tempers his regrets as he sits, blind and inert, in his sweltering flat.

“Ulrich has sometimes wondered whether his life has been a failure. Once he would have looked at all this, and said, Yes. But now he does not know what it means for a life to succeed for fail. How can a dog fail its life, or a tree? A life is just a quantity; and he can no more see failure in it than he can see failure in a pile of earth, or a bucket of water. Failure and success are foreign terms to such blind matter. Ulrich’s spirit has expanded in these last days, and he is no longer bereft. Einstein said, considering his death, I feel such solidarity with all things, that it does not matter where the individual begins and ends.”

But then, like his country, Ulrich was driftwood tossed about on the currents of empires and ideologies. How is it possible to survive 20th Century madness without a rich inner life?  For while he still has breath and a mind, nothing can take them away.

“Thinking back, he is surprised at the quantity of time he spent in daydreams. His private fictions have sustained him from one day to the next, even as the world itself has become nonsense. It never occurred to him to consider that the greatest portion of his spirit might have been poured into this creation. But it is not a despairing conclusion. His daydreams were a life’s endeavour of sorts, and now, when everything else is cut off, they are still at hand.” (p166)

But perhaps the bitterest pill that Ulrich has to swallow is his realisation of what Einstein really meant all those years before. For far from being a complement, Einstein seemed actually to be acknowledging that his bright star is only seen to shine brightest when contrasted with the surrounding mediocrity and failure. And as Ulrich discovers, the Nobel prize winner himself had to grapple with personal failures, many of which he worked hard to keep hidden.

But the point is that Ulrich has survived. And his hope is that the price paid by him and his generation will be sufficient to prevent the same agonies being felt in the future. As he considers his daydream ‘children':

“None of them is the child I thought I’d have, he reflects. But what else could I expect? A confounded man, living through such a mess, I couldn’t hope to father well. They’ll have a better life than I did and things will smoothen out. Their children will be better than they and in a couple of generations they’ll give birth to angels – and nothing will be left to show what bad times we sprang from. (p346)

Well, if only… it seems as naïvely optimistic a hope as his early passion for chemistry. History has constantly reminded us that we don’t learn from history. But this is, above all, a humane book “– filled with compassion and sensitivity — and so we can’t help but sympathise with Ulrich’s forlorn hope.

Rana Dasgupta has written a profound, poignant and remarkable book — which breathes life into the uncertainties, confusion and questioning of the postmodern age. It is thus a triumph. It rightly exposes the absurdities and horrors that the great 20th Century metanarratives wrought — and in common with so many in the 21st Century, struggles to find anything to replace them, apart from the sheer determination for survival. It lays down the gauntlet, however. For will we do better? Is there a metanarrative that is able to sustain someone through such trials. I, for one, believe that there is… but that, of course, is another story.

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