From a sluggish first half, Solo takes flight to a surreal world.
With Solo, Rana Dasgupta again demonstrates an unusual flair for the short story; for, though Solo is a novel, it is really the self-contained, story-like chapters of the second half of the book that are remarkable. In the latter part, the writing frees itself from an uneasy heavy-handedness that slows down and mars the book’s first part.
No doubt the first half is meant to give readers a sense of the sluggish, unrelenting pathos of real life (which does get through), however the structure seems unable to prevent the reading from occasionally becoming a little tedious.
But, for a large part of the first half, Solo does read well; a few sharp cuts might have prevented readers from getting a little fed with how long it takes the writer to show us what life means for the 100-year-old, blind Ulrich, sitting alone in his derelict flat and re-membering his own listless past and that of his country.
The good thing is that the second part begins just when one is wondering whether or not to consider abandoning the book, and lo! what follows is so energetic that one totally forgives the little tedium of what went before. Solo is conceived as two ‘movements’ — called ‘Life’ and ‘Daydreams’ — with ‘Daydreams’ soaring into flight, fuelled by the literal, realistic, chronologies of ‘Life’. Without ‘Life’, ‘Daydreams’ would be impossible!
In ‘Life’, there is the controlled narration of Ulrich’s journey to his present state of helpless compliance, powerless to shut out the invasion of neighbourhood smells and the sting of his own past. In the chapters that follow, Ulrich’s character is fleshed out, with events in his life that often depend on or are controlled by those that are happening to his country, Bulgaria, which is being slowly undone and reorganised as a unit of the Soviet Union. But perhaps because the patterns — of fate in a man’s life, and power in a country’s existence — are large and often repetitive, there is a feeling of going around in the same place, and the plot loses a little of its charm.
Ulrich is an interesting character, interestingly written; when he goes from part one to part two, he is not only a very different person, but also becomes a delicate clasp for the two sections. The annoying, pathetic, stale, person that we have had enough of is here freed of the shackles of his own ineffectiveness and becomes animated with a charming vision of life.
‘Daydreams’, the second half, has the momentum and all the crazy charm of a series of daydreams; it takes us back to characters and events from the first part, who — now unburdened of their baggage of history and chronology — fly about the pages like the outlandish but endearing figures from some surreal composition. In this section, perhaps because the plot requirements are not so locked in, the narrative structure is much more inviting, far less demanding and also more rewarding. ‘Daydreams’ is a madcap flourish that shakes off the restraints of time, space and logic so that nothing holds down the plot. And yet, as in Tokyo Cancelled, there’s nothing coming loose from or threatening to topple the total structure.
Rana Dasgupta is at home here. This is the voice we heard in Tokyo Cancelled, but honed clearer and purer, the voice of someone who can spin such tales that we are, at least for the moment, transported out of ourselves into another world of enchanting characters, whose lives are wild flashes on the page: Khatuna, Irakli, Boris, Ulrich and so many more.
Rana Dasgupta is an interesting storyteller, whose particular strengths are by now clear to readers, one looks forward to his next, a book set in Delhi.