Otherworlds and Underworlds

Views on BG | February 6, 2011, Sunday // 18:55
Bulgaria: Otherworlds and Underworlds Rana Dasgupta. File photo

By Sam Sacks

The Wall Street Journal

The modern literary movement toward expanded verisimilitude has led novelists to build stories and characters out of the most prosaic matters, from sex to shopping. Taken a step further—and why not, given how much of our time is spend daydreaming?—the approach gives us someone waiting at a traffic light in a reverie about former lovers, or sprawling in front of the TV, imagining an alternate life as a pro shortstop.

Take yet another step and you have Rana Dasgupta's "Solo" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 339 pages, USD 25), a novel utterly refreshing in its blunt acknowledgment that thoroughgoing realism involves escaping reality as much as constructing it. Published in Britain in 2009 and belatedly arriving in the U.S., the book tells the story of a Bulgarian man in his 90s named Ulrich. Blinded in an accident, he now sits in his Sofia apartment itemizing his memories.

His recall is spotty—he confesses that "there are decades he can hardly account for"—but what has stayed with him amounts to a dreary catalog of thwarted desires and severed relationships. We see him as a child, obsessed with the violin until his autocratic father bans his playing. Ulrich studies chemistry during the scientific renaissance of Weimar Germany, but his father's illness obliges him to drop out and work as an accountant. He marries and fathers a son, but his wife leaves him, remarries and moves away, their child in tow.

Ulrich reflects that his "own figure is dwarfed amid the vaster wreckage" of the 20th century. His country allies with Nazi Germany and then after the war falls behind the Iron Curtain. Finally, during his senescence, the Soviet Union falls and communism is replaced by a kind of mafia capitalism.

Mr. Dasgupta writes so silkily that even Ulrich's cramped biography is engaging, but it's hard not to worry that "Solo" is going to come to nothing more than a grim recitation of small and large suppressions. At its startling midpoint, though, the novel pivots, and we enter Ulrich's imagination. His daydreams, we're told, "were a life's endeavor, of sorts," and they animate an exuberant melodrama of high tragedy and worldly renown.

This cross-cutting story involves a poor girl who marries Bulgaria's wealthiest gangster and a violin virtuoso—unlike Ulrich, he "did not abandon his music" and eventually becomes famous. What makes Mr. Dasgupta's adventurous storytelling especially rewarding is the way he carefully integrates tiny details from Ulrich's drab life into his fantasy, transfiguring them like hay spun into gold.

"Solo" is in a larger sense an affirmation of the vitality of the spirit. At Ulrich's German university, scientists "rejected the idea that life is a unique and mystical essence. . . . They reasoned instead that living things were only chemical machines." In the novel's first half, the chapter headings are chemical elements, as in Primo Levi's "The Periodic Table." These elements betoken drudgery or, in the case of uranium, destruction. The daydream chapters, by contrast, have names like Ichthyosaur and Manatee, extraordinary creatures buried underground or hidden at sunken depths. The tacit assertion of this invigorating novel is that the more constrained a person's life, the more his imagination flourishes, until what's real is merely grist for the more vital stuff of dreams.


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Tags: Rana, Dasgupta, Tokyo Cancelled, Solo, Bulgaria
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