If we are to feel the thrill of progress and achievement, there have to be sacrifices elsewhere,” notes Ulrich, a 100-year-old Bulgarian. Reality is simple: Great achievement cannot avoid great misery. Alexander dies at too early an age and Nietzsche dies of too much madness. But what of the world of illusion: Could a man dream up achievement to compensate for a lifetime of misery? The answer is again so simple because it is so universal—who among us has not concocted joy when encountering pain? Yet it takes a skilful storyteller to weave a universal theme into a unique narrative.
Landmark: The St Nedelya Church in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital where Dasgupta’s book is set. AFP
British-born, New Delhi-based Rana Dasgupta lays out his second work, Solo, with the same blend of magic and reality that also characterized his Tokyo Cancelled (2005). In that work of short stories, the author spun yarns from Delhi to Frankfurt that resembled Arabian Nights and children’s fairy tales with a playfulness and colour that invoked Jorge Luis Borges’ Ficciones. Now, Dasgupta manages to sustain his magic realism into a longer and more complicated plot that—in a few weeks since publication—has already elicited comparisons with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and suggestions of the Man Booker Prize. Anticipation is high and Dasgupta, for the most part, doesn’t disappoint.
The author’s charm lies in the way he ekes out time. At the turn of this century, Ulrich considers his last 100 years of solitude. Bulgaria has seen it all: A belle époque shattered by World War I; the youthful hope of the Roaring Twenties destroyed by another; a fascist assault replaced by a Communist stranglehold; and history’s long march towards a classless society cut short by the chaos of sudden capitalism. His country has been ruined, and Ulrich no less—his romance shattered, his life destroyed, his ambition cut short. Is there a lesson in all this misfortune, one to be proffered to the new century?
Dasgupta spends the first part of the novel describing Ulrich’s life, devoting the second part to his bizarre daydreams. This second part starts out as an entirely different tale, but before long we sense how the daydream’s optimism and its wider global setting contrast with the pessimism and isolationism of Ulrich’s life. Ulrich imagines a son, Boris, who attains the greatness his father could only desire. It is the 20th century dreaming of a better future.
This idea is as strange as its representation, but Dasgupta pulls it off with ingenuity. No doubt, there are times when the project’s strangeness seems overwhelming. The author paints the Balkans, mostly Bulgaria, and sometimes Georgia—two countries he’s at best only visited and never belonged to. This unfamiliarity shows in the stereotypical attributes of developing nations wrought in conflict, societies mired in inequality or village simpletons shaken by modernity. The nuances with which author Milan Kundera portrays the Communist regime in his native Czechoslovakia (now split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia), for instance, is missing; Dasgupta doesn’t know the unnoticed secrets. It forces us to ask: Why has he picked this region? Part of the answer could be in the region’s polyglot air: One that is European yet Asian, and comes sprinkled with the local flavour of the gypsies. This is key to this region’s music, a motif that binds the work. And part of the answer could well be in the region’s history, one torn by war and replete with misery.
The music complements the misery, and thanks to this, Solo resonates with a feeling so overpowering that it calls to mind that great tragic hero Oedipus. Ulrich’s obsession with his mother, his blindness caused in frustration and his despair at the state of his family are uncannily reminiscent of Sophocles’ character. Oedipus remains the archetypal great man whose greatness is a cause of his own great misery. Ulrich, then, is the anti-Oedipus, just as his illusion is the anti-reality: He is a man who feels such hopelessness with his life that he must resort to the grandeur of daydreaming. As Oedipus says, “All else in the world almighty Time obliterates, crushes all to nothing”. Only dreams survive.