Solo by Rana Dasgupta
I read Dasgupta’s first novel Tokyo Cancelled back in 2007 and it was one of the most original debut novels I’ve read in recent years; it has really stayed with me.
A modern take on the Canterbury Tales, Tokyo Cancelled is really a linked story cycle in which a group of passengers stranded in an airport indulge in a spot of storytelling to pass the time. The travellers’ tales are very quirky and magical, slightly subversive and have a global scope in their settings. Some make you feel slightly uncomfortable, and others even have happy endings. Each one is different, but the underlying theme is similar to all – the idea of people not being in charge of their lives, being manipulated in one way or another – from the Tokyo businessman who falls in love with a doll, to the Indian who has to edit the bad bits out of people’s lives, and the girl imprisoned by a German mapmaker. The story about Robert De Niro’s lovechild and the magical Oreo cookie was my personal favourite.
The author’s style is richly imagined, but ever so slightly detached; this gives a fantastical edge to the narrative – remember these are stories being told to an audience. It works wonderfully and I loved it.
As you can imagine then, I was delighted to get my hands on an advance copy of his second novel – and it didn’t disappoint either. Solo is the story of one man, his life and his daydreams, and is a novel in two distinct ‘movements’.
In the first, we meet Ulrich – a Bulgarian. Now blind and 100 years old, he is reliant on his neighbour to look after him, and all he has left in life is to muse about his long life, and dream. As a young man, Ulrich has the potential to become a talented musician, but his father hates music and burns his violin. Ulrich turns to science, and goes to Berlin to study, and as a student he was there to pick up Einstein’s dropped papers, but his studies and a romance with a Czech scientist Clara, are thwarted having to return home to Sofia where his father is ill. There he falls for Magdelena, the sister of his late best friend Boris who had been executed for sedition. They marry and have a child, but it doesn’t last. Magdelena is not content with Ulrich being and accountant in a leather factory and leaves him to go to the USA, taking his son with him. Ulrich ends up then working as a small cog in a Barium Chloride factory in the chemical industry burgeoning under Communist control.
Feeling stifled in his life, Ulrich is worried about the effects of chemistry, he tells his mother …
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.
By the time Communism ends, chemistry has ruined his homeland.
Bulgarian sheep had miscarriages and died, and the cows went mad. Children were born with cancers and deformities. Like all his compatriots, Ulrich had become chemical himself, his blood a solution of cadmium, lead, zinc and copper.
Ulrich’s life story ends for now with musings about daydreams which leads into the second movement of this book. We meet a new cast of characters: Boris, a Bulgarian musican inspired by the Gypsy tradition, Georgian Khatuna – a girl who knows what she wants and will stop at nothing to get it – her younger poet brother Irakli, and ‘Plastic’ Munari – a top record producer in New York. Their stories start off separately – reminiscent in style of those in Tokyo cancelled, then gradually entwine as Boris is discovered by Plastic who is discovered by Khatuna and the circle is completed by Ulrich writing himself into their story.
Bulgaria’s story too comes to life. The author cleverly blends in fact with fiction to make the industrial hotpot of Eastern Europe under its successive waves of rule feel very real. It also resonates with chemistry – not just the physical chemistry of science but the emotional chemistry of failed relationships and thwarted ambition. If chemistry is the glue of this sweeping novel, then music is the spirit, always in the ether somewhere – particularly the folk music of the Gypsy violins. Its sweeping scale and dazzling descriptive prose makes up for the slight jarring between the two halves. I loved it.
Another review of this “widescreen” novel can be found on John Self’s Asylum blog here.
(Book supplied by the Amazon Vine Programme).