Rana Dasgupta: Solo
Dasgupta won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for this novel and it is not difficult to see why. It is a strange book and does not always hang together but it is a stunningly original book. We start off with Ulrich, a Bulgarian man living in the present, who is nearly a hundred years old. He is broke (depending on the neighbours for his food), blind and lonely. The first part of the book is his story. In his younger days his family was well-off. As a young adult, he watches as the new Bulgarian state is created and the many problems it faces. He wanted to be a musician and, with his mother’s help, takes up the violin but his father is very much against his son becoming a musician so he takes up chemistry instead. His father is able to pay for him to go and study chemistry in Berlin, leaving behind his friend Boris, who does play the violin. While in Berlin, he learns about the new developments in chemistry, particularly plastics, and falls in love with Clara Blum. But his father goes broke and he has to return to Bulgaria, never to leave it again and never to see Clara Blum again.
He settles down to a menial job in charge of bookkeeping at a leather manufacturer. He is devoted to his mother and never has a girlfriend. But things are not good in Bulgaria. People are arrested and often just disappear, as happens to Boris. After World War II, things do not get better as hoped. Ulrich’s mother is arrested and taken off to a labour camp. Meanwhile, the Communist authorities have heard that Ulrich knows something about chemistry and he is recruited to help reopen a factory producing barium chloride. He works hard and diligently, as the factory meets its targets. When he meets an old friend, now a senior Bulgarian security official, he pleads the case of his mother. Whether it has any influence, we do not know but, one day, she turns up at the house, very much the worse for wear. They will live together till she dies. But things do not go well for Boris and he will eventually go blind and live on his own, without any money, just next to the noisy and smelly bus station.
The second part of the book tells of a Bulgarian man and two Georgians, brother and sister. Boris – not the same Boris but a violin player as well – has lived alone for a long time. When the factory in the town closed, everyone left, except for Boris and his grandmother. His parents had died when he was a baby. When his grandmother dies, he lives on his own, playing his violin. He is discovered by a New York music producer, looking for the Balkan sound as the next big thing, and taken off to New York. Meanwhile, we follow the story of Khatuna and Irakli. Khatuna is entrepreneurial and soon is working for and then marrying a former Georgian football star, who has now become a very rich businessman and gangster. But, inevitably things go wrong and she, with her brother, a poet who wants nothing to do with gangsters, have to flee to New York, where their story merges not only with that of Boris but with that of Ulrich who, in his imagination, is in New York with them. It is cleverly done if not always convincing.
The title indicates that being on your own might be best and that is certainly true for the main characters whose relationships are generally not successful and who seem to function better doing things their own way. The bad guys, as they should, generally do not fare well. But even those with a laudable mission, Ulrich in particular, do not fare well. Chemistry, at least in a country with as many problems as Bulgaria has had during the past one hundred years, is no solution. Indeed, Dasgupta gives us a pretty bleak picture of Bulgaria, where nothing much seems to flourish and from where its nationals have to escape to have any hope of success. It is Dasgupta’s skill to show us this way, though I doubt that he will win many friends in the Bulgarian Tourist Office.
First published in 2009 by Fourth Estate