Solo by Rana Dasgupta


Have had this book for a while (it’s natural for me as I think it is for everyone who loves books, to have several unread books warming my shelves at any given time!) but haven’t got around to reading it yet. I picked it up in my favourite bookstore in Goa, Literati for several reasons. First, the very interesting blurb – I mean who can resist a 100 yr old Bulgarian man and something about dead parrots right?! Second – the gorgeous jacket cover that features a stunning still life by Georg Flegel and third – the many great reviews in cyberspace. I don’t usually go by reviews, preferring to draw my own conclusions, but they do broaden perspective, which is never a bad thing 🙂 Yeah…that’s the way I choose the books I read – Genre. Blurb. Cover. Recommendations from Friends. Reviews. In that order.

I’m a quick reader – a day or two for most books…and this one seems like it will be an easy read. My definition of an easy read is a book that has an interesting story told in a direct, simple style in crisp prose. Not a Marquez for example – whose flowery prose gets rather overbearing at times, and leaves me wading through pages of rambling sentences & descriptions, until I forget what it’s all about!! I speak from experience – we read Love in the Time of Cholera for our book club and although I found the story in itself fair and the characters interesting in parts, the prose made for excruciatingly slow reading! I’m all for atmosphere of course – it’s essential for authenticity – but crisp and edgy is more my style. Also, am not a huge fan of sweeping love stories (except Gone With the Wind which is more my kind of love story!). I’m essentially a crime and thriller kind of girl! So Marquez is most definitely not an easy nor quick read for moi!

That said…lets begin…Chapter 1…

It should actually be Day 1, cause I only started reading today. With one thing and another, didn’t get a chance to begin yesterday. But I’m well away now…Chapter 28, Page 165 and have just finished reading how Ulrich lost his sight. Of all the stupid things the man has done so far, really at times I wanted to just reach into the pages and shake him. Anything to make him awake from the stupor in which he functions – hard pressed to call it living!

It’s a fabulous read so far and based on the first half, is already on its way to becoming a favorite. The language – truly stunning, is what has me hooked! Of course reading the life story of a Bulgarian man, a centenarian or fast approaching is no less enticing, but the language is what has its hooks in me – deep and welcome and making the book pretty much un-put-downable! Enjoy the ways in which the author strings together a sentence, births a thought, uses well-worn adjectives in nouvelle, surprising ways. It is what makes the story of an old, lonely man who has lived a rather pathetic, exceedingly average life – interesting, intriguing and romantic. His story isn’t unique, (certainly there are thousands of Ulrichs’ across the globe, aging men and women living lonely, forsaken lives, clinging to an uncertain, tenuous reality whose stories have been told over the years), but the narration is what sets his apart from the rest.

In short – brilliant writing and interesting story so far…

Onward!

Alright – I’m done (read all through Day 3 and no time to blog, so this rather longish post) and not a little bamboozled from reading the ‘Second Movement’ of this weirdly wonderful book! I didn’t really get why the book was split into two halves entitled First & Second movement at first, until of course I realized that Ulrich’s one true love in life was music, from the loss of which he never fully recovered. As his fierce dedication to chemistry unfolded, the chemical names of sections became understandably valid. Equally vague were the captions in the second half, until a passing phrase, thought or idea ascribed to one of the characters brought clarity and illumination!

I found the second half disorienting at first – even though I caught on to the fact that the new cast of characters were a product of Ulrich’s daydreams – and so, essentially unreal, a figment of his imagination or should I say a creation of, instead? But they seemed so much more, their stories so well fleshed out, their anguish so real – that initially I kept looking for a tangible physical connection to Ulrich’s life. When I didn’t find one, I was in turns, confused, angry and disappointed, and quite frankly would have been happy to give up right there. Thankfully, I didn’t. I persevered and was rewarded with an original, weird (although, this is a word I associate with its characters rather than the book as a whole) albeit profound saga of love, friendship and life journeys. Once I surrendered to the author’s premise and suspended my initial disbelief, I found myself carried away by the flow of the narrative. The going got easier, and it was rather like reading a book within a book, scripted, cast and directed by Ulrich, which was strange, novel and intriguing all at once! An enjoyable experience, although several times, I found myself re-reading parts and scenes and sentences to draw parallels between Ulrich’s life, his character, his failures and his short, stunted periods of happiness.

So initially I had ‘Boris’ pegged for Ulrich himself and I thought his purpose, if one can call it that, was so Ulrich could live the successful life he never had, vicariously in his dreams. But as I read on and met Irakli, I was convinced that in this solitary, confused, alcoholically weak, but intensely passionate character was an unfortunate repetition of Ulrich’s own desolation. Khatuna, (the third character in the ‘dream trio’ as I began to think of them), had flashes of Magdalene’s resolve and firebrand personality, with her penchant for violence, her innate preference for ‘war’ over ‘peace’ and in her fervent devotion to her brother Irakli. ‘Plastic Murani’, the man who ‘discovers’ Boris and offers him up to the world, deserves a special mention. I loved him from the moment he appeared! How could I not – with a name like that! He was a delight, perhaps because he represented sanity in the ‘trio’s’ progressively flamboyant, destructive and insane lives. Also, he seemed to me the character that knew himself best and was secure in that knowledge, whether for better or worse; while every other character spiralled on an endless, often tortuous journey of self-discovery – rather exhausting that!

Ulrich is not physically present in this half, not as as himself that is, except in parts – although one is always aware of his subtle haunting presence throughout. I enjoyed the encounter between him and Clara Blum at the Woolworth building, surreal and poignant as it was. In the last few pages, the author crystallizes what for me is the essence of this book – through one final encounter between father ‘Ulrich’ and son ‘Boris’ (I should have known!), in which he (Ulrich) tries (as indeed, I assume all fathers do) to pass on his life’s wisdom hard-gained through his massive failures and brief victories. The meaning he ascribes to Einstein’s statement ‘I am nothing without you.’ is understandable, indeed plausible by the end. His theory of several, individual failures feeding the ‘one stupendous success’, in this case Einstein’s, however, seemed like a stretch at first. Don’t we attribute success to hard work, dedication, perseverance and all that jazz? Certainly not to another’s failure, right? Perhaps. Perhaps a bit of both. Another question of perspective that this book seems full of.

I guess seen from ‘the other side’, one could describe success as a collation of the little failures (real and perceived) of presumably insignificant lives, that go unnoticed, singed by the blinding luminescence of the hugely successful persons that they surround, feed and nurture at the cost of their own lives, their own dreams. Sacrifice may be a better word than failure and one that Ulrich himself uses while explaining his theory, but methinks the difference is only one of perception. Like Ulrich and later Boris reiterates, success-failure, love-loss, reality-daydreams – just two halves of one whole, and that to me, is the essence of Solo. True, not an original premise, but an original presentation certainly. I think I begin now to understand the reason for the title, which at first was rather obscure.

It’s a difficult book to slot into a genre other than literary fiction. It brought back memories of Life of Pi by Yann Martel, another favourite. This book made me think, it made me wonder, it made me curl up with sadness and seethe with anger. Like all good books should, it took me on a journey through another world, another time, another life and will stay with me through mine, until perhaps, I, like Ulrich, lose my grip on reality and even then maybe in my own daydreams!

A powerful, surreal book – this one’s a Keeper!


2 thoughts on “Solo by Rana Dasgupta

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