I remember liking Tokyo Cancelled, Rana Dasgupta’s earlier (and first) work of fiction. When I first came across Solo, its blurb content for some reason made me stay away. I remembered the leaps of imagination and thought I might not be able to keep pace. Recently, I read his non-fiction work ‘Capital’ and thoroughly loved it. And thus Solo arrived on my bookshelf.
A blind old man in Bulgaria, cared for by his neighbours, and dependent on them for many of his basic needs, reminiscing about the days gone by, might seem like a rather dry premise to base a novel on, but it magnificently surprised me. Ulrich is nearing the end of his life’s tenth decade and has lived through years of Bulgarian political experiments as the country’s elite switched their ideologies through the great wars and after. His early well-provided-for life contrasts sharply with the poverty of his later years, and the steadily declining quality of his life is poignant in itself. Through Ulrich’s perspective and experiences we see the socio-economic changes that take place in the country, and the author is able to do justice to both the suddenness of some of them as well as the gradual nature of the others. The sensitivity with which the author narrates a life that’s fallen on hard times that’s truly wonderful.
The first section is a sketch of Ulrich’s life, divided into chapters that correspond to life stages and are named after elements. Ulrich is after all, a chemistry buff. I get a feeling that there is some connection between the element’s properties and Ulrich’s life stage/quality of life. The glow of magnesium, the basic nature of carbon, but I’ll have to do a little more research to be really sure!
The second section – the children of Ulrich’s daydreams – is where the author soars. Three young people in Georgia, whose attitudes and worldview can be seen as the ‘aftermath’ of all that has transpired in that geography. Despite sharing broadly common circumstances, their personalities and the way in which they perceive how a life should be lived are in stark contrast to each other. Through various twists and turns, they finally meet in New York, and so does Ulrich! No, there’s no thrilling climactic finish, rather, just a continuation of the subtle undercurrents and sharp peaks that the book had thus far.
The prose is simply fantastic. But beyond that, and the universality of human experiences, the book actually spoke to me. In many phrases, it seemed to be raising the questions I have in my mind. Other words articulated, with amazing sharpness, my own feelings and perspectives. This one is a favourite, and I’ll probably even re-read it later.