A man’s half-lucid reminiscence on 100 years of his life in Bulgaria and of forgotten hopes, dreams and passions.
There is no single quote which stands out in memory, but there are many that made the narrative itself memorable:
“A long time ago, Boris and I had a debate about chemistry. I said it was the science of life, and he said it brought only death. Now I see that our views were simply two halves of the same thing.”
“Ulrich has sometimes wandered is his life has been a failure. Once he would have looked at all this and said, Yes. But now, he does not know what it means for a life to succeed or fail. How can a dog fail its life or a tree? 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.
“if I could make an Einstein with my failed science, think what will come of my music.”
“The blackness of his obliterated vision has made a fertile screen for his daydreams”
Let me start off by saying that the duration alone is not enough to compare this book with “One hundred years of solitude”. While they are definitely not on par, both of them did bring a welcome change in an era predominated by recycled content and little originality.
A great book can be written by a writer who believes that he is catering to a very intelligent reader, or one who believes in elucidating every point with factual data. British-Indian novelist, Rana Dasgupta belongs to the former category. His Commonwealth Writer’s Prize winning book Solo carries off a surreal story of a 100 year old Ulrich without stagnating on the details.
Ulrich is disconcerted to learn about the death of a community of parrots which spoke an extinct language thus taking the secrets of the language along with them, and decides to go through a virtual tour of his eventful life in Bulgaria through the years.
During the early rule of the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria prospered, providing a perfect platform for Ulrich’s father who was a railway engineer and his politically inclined eccentric mother Elizaveta. Ulrich on the other hand was fascinated by gypsy music and then chemistry and decides to pursue the latter in Berlin. He is in awe of the new world opened before him in Germany with legends like Einstein, Nernst and Haber, but is brought out of his reverie when he is called back home after 3 years due to lack of funds. Struggling amidst a mundane job as a book-keeper, political instabilities, personal losses and a failed marriage, Ulrich gets a job to revive an old chemical factory in the post-Second world war communistic era. He retires to a relatively calm life with occasional chemical experiments.
Bulgaria became a capitalistic nation in 1989/1990, by which Ulrich had dried up his pension money and had lost his eyesight in an unfortunate accident making him completely dependent on his neighbors . With the inability to see the outside world, Ulrich depended on himself to create a world of his own and resorted to day dreaming.
My initial reaction to the first section was mixed. Bulgaria is a lesser known country, and its history needed a lot of absorbing to be done. Setting up the story in one of the most turbulent political periods in Bulgaria and the most progressives times in Germany resulted in giving a very rich background to the story, but I felt it was not utilised as well as it could have been. There was no mention of the years for starters, making it difficult to understand which war or what upheaval was being discussed.
After reading it for the second time though (with enough data in hand), Dasgupta’s intentions became clearer. Solo is not meant to be about Bulgaria. It is about a common man’s extraordinary life in the 100 most eventful years in Bulgaria. It was meant to showcase how the ideals, passion, hopes and dreams of a man are affected by surrounding changes.
The second section is the story of three characters of Ulrich’s imagination– a musical prodigy called Boris, a mentally scarred wife of a tycoon, Khatuna and her poet brother Irakli. While the three stories initially seem disconnected from each other, and indeed from the first half of the book, the connections start coming across. There are many parallel references to Ulrich’s life in these day dreams. For example, Boris’ obsession with gypsy music, Boris’ grandmother writing obituaries and hanging it on trees, his practising music in a chemical factory, Khatuna’s mother selling off family heirlooms to sustain the family and so on.
A chance encounter brings the three together, and Boris and Irakli form an instant bonding. Khatuna’s possessiveness of Irakli, coupled with Boris’ ignoring her makes her hostile towards their budding friendship. However, Boris’ success makes Irakli feel inferior and depressed, and he finally commits suicide.
The cross linking between reality and dreaming happens when Ulrich visits Boris and advises him to take care of Irakli. On his loss, Ulrich ends the encounter with these words - I lost a friend once and I know how it goes. He’ll find his way inside you and you’ll carry him onward. Behind your heartbeat, you will hear another one, faint and out of step. People will say you are speaking his opinions or your hair has turned like his…. Gradually you’ll grow older than him and love him like your son.
The second section is more subtle and tastefully done. It is almost as if the first section provided a richly colorful palette for painting Ulrich’s imagination in later years. The stories of the individuals in itself were interesting, and any surreal coincidences could be attributed to them being day dreams. Of course, the justification of the characteristics of these individuals through his final talk with Boris was a final masterstroke.
Therefore, the verdict is difficult to give. The book is full of hidden meanings and undertones. The book is not recommended for a light-hearted summer-time read, even though the story is simple. The pieces don’t fall into place here. They have to be meticulously assembled by the readers themselves. The book expects an intelligent reader who can think along with the story and not just read the words.