Indian writer Rana Dasgupta's newest book emerges as the best novel set in Bulgaria since Julian Barnes's The Porcupine
According to the dust-cover blurb by Salman Rushdie, Solo is a novel of "exceptional, astonishing strangeness... confirming Rana Dasgupta as the most unexpected and original Indian writer of his generation."
An Indian writer? Writing about Bulgaria?
Anyone with the remotest interest in this country would readily grab the chance to at least look at any of the extremely rare English-language books dealing with or set in Bulgaria, if only for the fun of discovering where the foreign author went wrong in what Bulgarians themselves describe as one of the most difficult-to-understand countries in Europe.
But with Solo you are not just into a bout of topography and proper names fact-checking, for it is a major work of fiction, an "instant classic," in the words of one Australian reviewer; a book that may well be shortlisted for this year's Booker Prize.
If it is, it will be fully justified. It is difficult to describe Solo, which sometimes reads like Kafka, sometimes like Márquez, and sometimes like Bernhard Schlink, in terms of any other novel or a literary genre. It tells in a very nonchalant manner the life of a Bulgarian bearing the German name of Ulrich, who is reaching the age of 100, and who, toward the end of his life, has become blind.
Ulrich's father was one of the first railway engineers in Bulgaria at the time when it had just become independent from the Ottoman Empire. As the story progresses, it turns out that that time, at the turn of the 19th Century, was the happiest for both Bulgaria as a nation and for Ulrich as a person.
The enthusiasm of the builders of modern Bulgaria would soon be quashed in a succession of disastrous wars, followed by Communist and tsarist terror, then a spell of dictatorship, and then 45 years of Communism, only to be succeeded by a very Balkanised semblance of democracy.
After the initial shock of losing his sight, Ulrich soon discovers that his inability to see his TV set in fact rejuvenates his mind: he can only hear the chalga music and the news about the death of Iliya Pavlov.
As Ulrich embarks on his epic armchair journey through the twists and turns of his country's chequered history and his own lifetime of lost love and professional failure, he discovers that Bulgaria sometimes belonged to Asia and sometimes to Europe – and its evolution from a peasant to an industrialised society has meant lost roots, broken traditions and wasted ambitions, with nothing to replace them at the end of the 20th Century.
Ulrich is not a failed man, but the product of a failed society that throughout history always backed the wrong horse.
As the first of Solo's two "movements" ends, Dasgupta, who was born in Canterbury in 1971, grew up in Cambridge, studied in Oxford and now lives in New Delhi, takes us on a head-spinning tour of Bulgarian people and places that are ostensibly unrelated to Ulrich's sober story. The would-be star violinist, the pulp-fiction mistress of a gangster-cum-businessman and the
American music producer with the wonderful name of Plastic Munari will all connect in New York. Not surprisingly, old Ulrich walks into their lives, to reunite with his only true love, a Jewish girl from early 20th Century Berlin, who in fact perished long before in the Holocaust. The second part of Solo is called "Daydreams."
In James Joyce's Ulysses Stephen Dedalus described history as "a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." For Ulrich, his country's history can only be redeemed in dreams.
There are other aspects of Rana Dasgupta's second novel that a reader in Bulgaria will find very interesting and refreshing. Dasgupta is fully at ease with Dondukov Boulevard and Pop Bogomil Street and skilfully sums up in a few sentences the lives of people as varied as Geo Milev and Todor Zhivkov.
From Solo, someone with no knowledge at all about Bulgaria (and the majority of people in the world will happily admit complete ignorance) can learn some profound truths that have shaped this nation in the past 120 years. Significantly, Rana Dasgupta lacks the provinciality parochialism that have always been part-and-parcel of this country's literature and its so-called intellectual establishment. An Indian writer, just like blind Ulrich, knows and sees better than the "seeing" locals.