For the past century or so, Bulgaria has served as a sort of unwitting laboratory for political change in the western world; communism, socialism and capitalism have all swept through and had their way with the place. So it makes sense that Rana Dasgupta would set his new novel here: Solo is the story of a 100-year-old Bulgarian man, who happens to be an amateur chemist with an ad hoc lab in his apartment, reflecting on his life as it was shaped by the huge, transformative, uncontrollable forces of history.
But Solo isn’t really a political novel, though politics infuse every page. It’s a love story, in a way, but more than that it’s a story about squelched love, truncated passions. The old man, Ulrich, is confined to his apartment in Sofia. He has been blind for years; his neighbors stop by to give him food and medicine. The first half of the novel follows Ulrich’s efforts to piece together and make sense of his childhood and early life. As a boy, Ulrich fell madly in love with music, but his father banished it from the household. So he turned to his second love, chemistry. He dreamed of becoming a great inventor and boosting his country’s industrial sophistication. He went to Berlin to study chemistry with the scientists who were at the forefront of innovation at the time, but then his mother, penniless and on the wrong side of the latest political shift, called him home.
With both his obsessions lost to him, Ulrich gets a job managing a factory. He marries his best friend’s sister and has a son, but loses them as well. He descends into poverty and chaos, like his homeland. As charming and eloquent as Ulrich is, his melancholy trudge through his own bleak history threatens to become a serious downer.
But just as things start to seem impossibly hopeless, the novel explodes into its delightful second half. Ulrich has survived his grim existence, it turns out, by daydreaming constantly: “His private fictions have sustained him from one day to the next, even as the world itself has become nonsense.” The daydreams were, Dasgupta tells us, “a life’s endeavor of sorts.” In this part of the novel, we follow Ulrich’s dreamed-up children, who are free to roam where he cannot and pursue the passions that were denied him. It’s an illustration of the theory that an urge suppressed in one place will spring forth in another, and that every great achievement is built on multiple great failures. (Albert Einstein pops up here and there to embody this theme.)
Ulrich’s daydreams are more vivid than any of the actual life experiences he details, and in the book‘s second half Dasgupta‘s already gorgeous writing becomes doubly concentrated. (Here, for instance, is one character describing the sounds of New York City: “the stricken alarm of reversing trucks, the industrial growl of electronic shutters, the hydraulic sigh of brakes.”) We’re lulled by Ulrich’s spare existence, then suddenly freed into his kaleidoscopic imagination; it’s a thrilling lesson on the power of an inner life to transcend the circumstances of history.
Becky Ohlsen is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.