Reading Solo

I must admit the sheer size of this book scared me a bit. It’s not that I read short stories for attention deficit reasons — if I get into a good novel I’ll stay up all night to read it. This particular book, though, would take more than one all-night stint to finish. It’s about a man who is a hundred years old, and his attempts to make sense of all the changes (political, cultural, scientific etc) he lives through in his lifetime. The other night at Costa, while waiting for things to kick off at the Pulp Net Short Story Cafe, I asked Rana Dasgupta if he knew the Costa Book of the Year award was recently won by another novel with a 100-year-old narrator. He laughed and said he’d been on a panel at a literary festival the other day, and the guy next to him was Sebastian Barry. That is when they discovered the link between their novels. More on Solo later, if I finish it.

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Review I wrote for the Camden New Journal:

The cover illustration of Solo
The cover illustration of Solo

Rana Dasgupta’s new novel charts the turbulent storms of the past century from a unique standpoint, writes Lane Ashfeldt

SOLO by Rana Dasgupta.
Fourth Estate, £14.99

WITH his debut novel, British-born author Rana Dasgupta threw his cards on the table as if to announce that here was one new writer who refused to play the ethnic fiction game.
Hailed as a kind of  Canterbury Tales of its time, Tokyo Cancelled, in which 13 travellers exchanged their stories in the neutral space of an airport waiting room, proved Rana’s ability to leap in and out of a variety of cultural mindsets.
So when his second book, Solo, fades up on an old man who sits alone “in front of beauty contests, infomercials, German pornography, travel shows, and other similar kinds of modern wisdom”, the reader may be forgiven for wondering: Where are we now? London? Lagos? Delhi? Tokyo?
But this is not Tokyo, this book is no literary Lost in Translation. Its subject is the strange days we live in now, viewed through the eyes of an aged Bulgarian man.
The book covers a 100-year period from 1905 to 2005, and was appropriately launched at Clerkenwell’s Crown Tavern, where in 1905 Lenin met Stalin.
But why did Rana choose Bulgaria as the setting for Solo?
“Bulgaria is a country that has been a kind of laboratory for ideological experiments,” he says.
“It’s had fascism, it’s had communism, it’s had empire – and I wanted to look at the effect it has on an individual’s life when their country is ripped apart and they must to put themselves back together for a new regime.”
From an unquiet room in Sofia the aged Ulrich, whose father was a catalyst for progress, relives the advent of trains and cars and science and plastic, and muses on the disappearance of horses.
He remembers the rise of one kind of music or one kind of dictator, and the fall of another.
Over its 360 pages the novel reveals stories of wars – ideological and physical – and allows the reader to witness the moment when Ulrich’s ambitions as a scientist, and indeed science itself, are sold off to the highest bidder.
By this point, the young Ulrich has travelled to Berlin, a city then at the forefront of technological advance, in order to study science.
“That moment completely fascinates me,” Rana says, “because it was the end, really, of the time when science was part of culture.
“People followed Einstein’s theories and the newspapers explained those theories, and there was this connection between public culture and science. Then [when the Nazis began to persecute Jewish scientists], this scene was completely destroyed. I mean it was an amazing handover of Europe to America.”
Or, as the bewildered Ulrich wonders in the wake of Hiroshima after the burning light of progress has shown its dangerous side: “What happened to those beautiful scientists when they got to America?”
Music and creativity are other key themes in Solo. The book is divided in two self-contained movements in the style of a musical composition, and the second half offers a variation on what went before, looking forward instead of back.
Rana says: “I was very attracted to Bulgaria through its music. The country has an amazing musical tradition. There is a vibrant folk music, but, having been part of the Ottoman Empire, there has also been Turkish, Arabic and Gypsy music. And the story of how the Communist state banned all this other music, banned jazz, and created an enormous silence around music – all this is a very Bulgarian story, and it’s a big part of the story I wanted to tell.”
Early on in the novel Ulrich’s father bans him from learning the violin, and his best friend Boris gives up a promising musical career for politics. But in the second movement, in which Ulrich daydreams about the modern world, he meets a young and different Boris: one who grew up in a forgotten village, untouched by “isms”, for whom music is everything.
Rana’s eyes light up as he speaks of the contemporary resurgence in Bulgarian music of old musical forms, and of more recent popular hybrids. “There’s a form called chalga that mixes Turkish and Arabic sounds with hiphop,” he says. “Middle-class Bulgarians sneer at it because in the 1990s this became the official music of the gangster elite.”
The end of Solo, when its characters are caught up in the 1990s über-capitalism that replaces communism, takes on the strains of chalga’s restless, unstoppable urgency. To this tune, perhaps, Ulrich follows the new Boris to an imagined America, and struggles blindly to make sense of this unknown world.
This is a powerful and exhilarating novel that entices readers to see old stories afresh.

• Lane Ashfeldt is an Islington short story writer

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