From The New York Times
By Karan Manajan
Most people die before they can witness the historical consequences of their actions. Ulrich, the 100-year-old Bulgarian man at the center of Rana Dasgupta’s new novel, “Solo,” is an exception: he is so ancient he lives in a state of perpetual, dazed aftermath. Once the manager of a chemical factory for the Communists, he watches as Bulgaria’s rivers start oozing familiar poisons: “Like all his compatriots, Ulrich had become chemical himself, his blood a solution of cadmium, lead, zinc and copper.” Soon after, Communism falls, multiplying the pointlessness of Ulrich’s life.
The first half of "Solo" is a swift retelling of Bulgarian history through Ulrich's many failures. When this story ends, we are abruptly introduced to Ulrich's "Daydreams" — his "private fictions" that "have sustained him from one day to the next, even as the world itself has become nonsense." But these so-called dreams are in fact the ultramodern and well-researched tales of three young Eastern European characters trying to make it big in New York in the 2000s. They are only glancingly fabulist and tenuously linked to Ulrich's experiences. "Solo" bills itself as a novel, but it is really two distinct novellas held together by the author's interest in Bulgaria and Georgia.
Ulrich represents the proud Bulgarian spirit that was crushed by Communism. He is one of many students drawn by a surge of scientific optimism in the 1920s to Berlin, where a chance encounter with Einstein feeds his ambitions of making a great discovery. Tragically, he never finishes his studies in chemistry. Recalled to Sofia by his bankrupt family, he ends up working as a bookkeeper and, later, as the manager of a barium chloride factory. But he is never completely resigned to anonymity. In one startling section, he weeps uncontrollably when he witnesses any example of "surpassing human achievement." His pitiable attempts to conduct private experiments are the most moving parts of the book.
In formal, almost fussy prose, Dasgupta suggests Ulrich is alienated from his own past. Certain happy memories, like the one involving Ulrich's courtship, in Berlin, of Clara Blum, the only woman he truly loved, are presented in a series of beautiful paragraph-long fragments. But these never deepen beyond snapshots. Neither do the other characters, who speak in a lofty idealistic manner, and whose lives, cut short by war or Communism, are mere illustrations of the brutality of Bulgarian history. The overall effect is of reading the summary of a tragedy rather than experiencing it firsthand.
Dasgupta's writing soars when it isn't tethered to historical fact. In the second novella, he moves fluidly from the pig-farming traditions of rural Bulgaria and the raves of post-Communist Tbilisi to contemporary New York, where a couple of Bulgarian bureaucrats approach an American record executive to produce a Bulgarian music superstar — the only way, they feel, the world can be made to care about their country. What ensues is not the silly comedy of errors one would expect: Dasgupta is a deeply empathetic, serious writer. If he works with fairly recognizable types (a narcissistic record producer, a mad-genius Bulgarian folk musician, a suicidal Georgian poet and his gangster-moll sister), he complicates them by making them care for one another in warm and mysterious ways. The last section of "Solo" brims with superb descriptions of folk music and the drunken talk of men and women who are brought together, then driven apart, by the fall of Communism.
In the end, it is the differences between the novellas that stay with the reader. Compared with the capitalist antics of the "Daydreams" section, the quiet heroism of Ulrich's life becomes even more impressive. In his last decades, he is stripped of all relatives, denied his private experiments by the government and reduced to homelessness. Yet he goes on. And remarkably, at the end of "Solo," Ulrich is still alive.
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