Solo is the story of Ulrich, a blind, hundred-year-old Bulgarian man who has little to do with his days but reminisce and daydream. He does both during the course of the novel.
By most standards, Ulrich’s life would be considered a failure. Thwarted (by his father) in his early ambitions to become a musician, Ulrich turned instead to chemistry; but abandoned his studies in Berlin and returned to Sofia when his family’s investments failed. He became a bookkeeper and married a pianist, but that relationship was ultimately doomed; then came the Second World War, and after that, the rule of communism. Regarded with suspicion by the ruling party, Ulrich is nevertheless given a job in charge of operations at a chemical factory, where he works until made to retire. He then does his own experiments at home, until the Party closes down his laboratory. And that, more or less, is the sum of Ulrich’s life.
The second half of Solo consists of an extended daydream of Ulrich’s, in which he reimagines his friend Boris (whom in reality was executed as a young man in the early 20th century) as a young, successful musician in the present day. Also in the dream are Plastic Munari, the music producer who ‘discovers’ Boris; Khatuna, a Georgian girl who goes up in the world when she gets a job working for a gangster-politician, but flees to New York when he’s shot, and later becomes Plastic’s girlfriend; and Irakli, Khatuna’s wayward poet brother, who becomes dazzled by Boris, though Khatuna hates the musician. There is happiness, of a sort, to be found in the daydream; though it’s not for this post to say which characters find it.
Solo is an exquisite book, one of the best I’ve read all year; but trying to encompass why is quite difficult, because it could go in so many directions — Solo is ‘about’ many different things, so consider this post only a partial treatment. On a stylistic and technical level, the novel is superb. Here, for example, is how Dasgupta describes a change in Ulrich’s mother when her husband dies:
While he was still alive, Elizaveta would say, ‘All he ever does is sit in that chair and look out of the window.’ It infuriated her to see him so inactive. But after he died she never said anything but, ‘That was the chair he loved.’ Or, ‘How he loved sitting in that chair.’ Or, ‘They are spoiling the view your father loved so much.’
The contrast between the novel’s two parts is also well-handled and subtle. It’s not simply that one depicts failure and the other success. It’s that, in life, one of Ulrich’s obsessions caused so much tragedy — chemistry destroyed his marriage, poisoned his country, took his sight; but, in his daydreams, it is Ulrich’s other obsession, music, that brings so much joy. And it’s that Ulrich’s memories, being somewhat hazy and episodic, feel much like daydreams; whilst his daydreams have a structure that make them feel more like reality (come to think of it, isn’t that often the way in our own lives?).
Yet there’s much more to Solo than technique. There’s a political side, too, though it tends to stay in the background (or, more accurately, often has the feel of staying in the background), because Ulrich is rather naïve politically (in retirement, when the police describe his unofficial experiments as ‘dangerous’, Ulrich takes them literally, replying, ‘I wear a gas mask’). Now, admittedly, I don’t know much about the history and politics that the novel’s concerned with, so it may be that my reading is sketchy; but my overriding impression of the politics in Solo is that, whoever’s in power, they’re out largely for themselves, and it makes little difference to Ulrich’s lot.
I’ve heard Rana Dasgupta say (see Postscript) that one of Solo‘s themes is the ‘Faustian bargain we make with modern life’. Looking at the novel through this lens… well, the twentieth century is not very kind to Ulrich, or to Bulgaria in general; and I’ve already mentioned the fruits of Ulrich’s love of chemistry. The daydream is interesting in this regard, because it’s Ulrich’s attempt to make a better life for his friend Boris, and so he does — but the imagined reality is hardly the best of all possible worlds; there are prices to be paid for the glory. Perhaps Ulrich cannot bring himself to create a world without tragedy; perhaps, Solo suggests, it isn’t really possible (‘if we are to feel the thrill of progress and achievement, there have to be sacrifices elsewhere,’ says Ulrich at one point).
Then there is the question Ulrich thinks about at the end of his reminiscing: what does it truly mean to call a life a failure? ‘How can a dog fail its life, or a tree?’ he thinks. ‘A life is just a quantity; and he can no more see failure in it than he can see failure in a pile of earth, or a bucket of water. Failure and success are foreign terms to such blind matter.’ Well, perhaps if Ulrich can imagine a better life for someone else, that can be his success (the way Ulrich thinks and imagines, his daydreams have equal weight to his life). And if Ulrich must fail, at least it will be — in his words — ‘a fantastic failure. A triumphant failure.’
Solo is no failure, but it is triumphant.
Earlier this week, whilst I was still reading Solo, I discovered that Rana Dasgupta was giving a reading near me; so I caught the train to Cambridge yesterday evening (around the houses, naturally, given the sorely-neglected state of the British rail system) and went along. I am pleased to report that Dasgupta is a very nice chap, as well as being a great writer. He also has the second-coolest signature I’ve ever seen (sorry, but Stephen Jones’ just edges him out). Some of the things Rana said helped illuminate and clarify the ideas I was having, thus providing some of the hooks on which this post hangs.