Rana Dasgupta: Solo

I’ve noticed a trend in recent years for a particular type of British novel; let’s call them widescreens. They are mostly by younger authors, and are ambitious works containing a large cast of characters, far-flung geographical settings, and modern history or political issues rendered in fiction. Perhaps these have always been around and the only trend is that I have begun to notice them. Sometimes the ambition exceeds the achievement, as in James Meek’s We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, but elsewhere there are books which, even when imperfect, are so interesting and contain so many good things that to miss them would be to miss out. I am thinking of very recent titles like Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil, Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows, and a novel published a few years ago which didn’t get the attention it deserved, The Weight of Numbers by Simon Ings. To this list we can now add Rana Gasgupta’s fascinating novel Solo.

In Solo, one character reflects that he “could not think of a single fact he knew about Bulgaria. He had a vague sense that it wasn’t much fun to live there.” Dasgupta’s task is to lead the reader who shares this ignorance – and who doesn’t? – into a richly imagined account of Bulgaria’s past and present, a country which as far as I can tell, he has more or less to himself among current novelists in English. His work is done through the mediation of central character Ulrich, a one-hundred-year-old blind man who goes “wading through the principal events of his life in order to discover what relics may be submerged there.” His – or Dasgupta’s – justification is that

Before the man lost his sight, he read this story in a magazine: a group of explorers came upon a community of parrots speaking the language of a society that had been wiped out in a recent catastrophe. Astonished by their discovery, they put the parrots in cages and sent them home so that linguists could record what remained of the lost language. But the parrots, already traumatised by the devastation they had witnessed, died along the way.

It is this sort of throwaway paragraph that emphasises Dasgupta’s great imaginative facility. (I’d love to read a novel, or even a story, based on this summary.) These fable-like vignettes occur throughout the book – the scene of killing a pig which opens the second part of the book is a particular highlight – and I wondered if Dasgupta wasn’t more comfortable in short fiction than long. His debut novel, Tokyo Cancelled, was a ‘story cycle’ of thirteen characters delayed in an airport, telling one another their tales. The obvious benchmark here is David Mitchell, whose Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas had similar many-stories-in-one structures. Solo, however, does bring its elements together into a unified whole, though the book comes in two distinct and contrasting parts (or ‘Movements’, which preciousness is not quite justified by its relevance to the book’s recurring motif of music. I had similar thoughts on the titling of chapters, after chemical elements in the first part, and sea creatures in the second. ‘Narwhal’. ‘Beluga’. ‘Dugong’. ‘Manatee’).

The first half tells the story of Ulrich – and of Bulgaria – in the 20th century, neatly twined so that we get a boy’s development and discovery told through the social and political developments in the world: the scientific advances in Berlin, where Ulrich works for a time, against the sluggishness of Bulgaria; communist bombings in 1925, the fascist coup of 1934, the replacement of one dictatorship with another after the war, followed by corrupt capitalism to cap it all, while throughout, the one constant is that the people suffer. (“Forty or fifty years, [Ulrich] thought, were enough for a modern life, for the human frame could not hold up if the world was destroyed too many times and made again.”) What emerges is a portrait of a country served poorly by its leaders over the decades, and an effective communication of how family, friends and lovers interact under these conditions. This is all the more touching because of its restraint, such as in this short but evocative depiction of Ulrich’s mother and his amputee father:

While [Ulrich’s father] was still alive, Elizaveta would say, ‘All he ever does is sit in that chair and look out of the window.’ It infuriated her to see him so inactive. But after he died she never said anything but, ‘That was the chair he loved.’ Or, ‘How he loved sitting in that chair.’ Or, ‘They are spoiling the view that your father loved so much.’

This first half is successful because it combines the density of detail from ‘telling’ with the immersive quality of ‘showing’, so we have a fluent story but with an epic feel. Dasgupta also has command of a superb descriptive skill, which he showboats in passages such as this, emphasising a blind man’s sensitivity to the different sounds which rain produces:

…the silky spray in the trees, the heavy drumming on plastic water tanks, the hard scatter of roads and pavements, the different metallic pitches of car roofs and drain covers, the baritone drilling of tarpaulin, the sticky overflow of mud, the concentrated gushing of drainpipes – and, for a moment, the landscape springs forth, and he is reminded how it is to see.

Then comes the second part, or movement, ‘Daydreams’, which purports to be made up of Ulrich’s, well, daydreams. Character names and motifs recur from the first part, but the whole has a much more modern setting – celebrity, media, gangsterism – and thrillerish pace than the first part. The characters are subservient to the story, unlike the first half of the book, though the themes remain connected (“It’s difficult for us to sustain our passions through life, and we become mournful for what we’ve given up”). I liked it less than the first half, but nonetheless admired the bold and ingenious way in which Dasgupta incorporated Ulrich into the story – just about – and the ending offers a satisfying, almost symphonic close to a brave and memorable work. Dasgupta is a writer to watch for the future; but also one to read now.

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  1. This one’s been on the edge of my radar for a little while… when I read books that are fragmented like this one, it sometimes feels as though the author just wasn’t ready to tackle a single, cohesive narrative. You seem to have been less than sure about this yourself in this case – how did you come down on that in the end? Was this fragmentation the only way the story could be told, or the only way Dasgupta could tell it?

  2. A good question, Rob. My gut feeling was the latter, or at least that the book as I read it did not start out as just one idea. This is where the comparison with David Mitchell arose: undoubtedly one of our most talented writers, but it seems to be agreed that his weakest book is the one which is definitely ‘a proper novel’ (Black Swan Green: I haven’t read it, but that’s the impression I pick up). Certainly I will await with interest Mitchell’s new novel Deshima, which is out next May, and which apparently is just one story.

    I don’t think Dasgupta is Mitchell’s equal – who is? – but I shall definitely be reading his first book Tokyo Cancelled, which I bought last year after reading this piece (I see from that link that I bought it over a year ago: a virtual newcomer to my TBR pile then). As I mentioned above, it comprises a series of stories, but I’ve seen it described as a novel.

    Publishers often describe books as novels which clearly strain the definition, such as Jim Crace’s The Devil’s Larder. This I suppose is mainly because they sell better than collections of stories. That gives rise to a second discussion of what a novel requires to qualify for that name – unification of characters, setting, story? Solo is definitely a novel, but may not have started out as one.

    Incidentally, Dasgupta was the only person thanked in the acknowledgments (it should really have been headed Acknowledgement) of Tim Parks’ novel Dreams of Rivers and Seas, which I read last year. I mention this as a moment of synchronicity as I believe that book too was on your radar.

    1. I attempted “Tokyo, Cancelled” after hearing good things about it (and then finding a copy in a used bookshop in Brooklyn). It’s really a short story collection, not a novel. The stories are set in a frame, like the “Decameron”, but as far as I could tell they did not relate in any other way. Ultimately, I wasn’t able to get any further than the third story. I found a lot of the same fragmentation that John describes – but in a single short story it was less excusable. His narrative was all over the place – as if he had to fit all his ideas into one space. But despite that, there is something to Dasgupta’s writing that kept me from dismissing it completely. The stories I read reminded me a bit of Borges “Ficciones” – they had that same confused, surreal quality to them. I’ve kept the book in case I decide to go back to it eventually. John, I’m interested in what you said about the vignettes…at any point did you feel like the author was trying to include too much? That the fragmentation was less a symptom of style, and more a sign of a disorganized mind?

  3. David Mitchell is another that I’ve never read. I came close to buying Cloud Atlas a few times, and I’m not sure what exactly put me off in the end. It may even have been something as silly as the garish pink cover that said “new!” a little too loudly. Maybe I should reconsider that when Deshima arrives?

    Here’s to synchronicity – I have Dreams of Rivers and Seas at my elbow as I type, although it’s still a couple of titles down in the pile. (After I read Little Monsters, The Scent of Cinnamon leapfrogged up a few places.)

  4. I agree with the observation in your opening paragraph — I might add Edward Docx into that mix as well. I oarticularly agree with your assessment that none of these books quite “gets” there — but all are worth the attention. I do think as well that there were versions of this phenomenon in earlier generations, but we don’t tend to view them that way now since the work was good enough to last. Conrad, Paul Scott, Forster and even Durrell all come to mind as at least comparable to what you describe.

    I have read Black Swan Green. I didn’t find it as interesting as either of Mitchell’s other two books, precisely because it was not as ambitious as they were. In that sense, I wouldn’t call it “inferior” but perhaps “lesser”. Given the complexity of Cloud Atlas, which I very much enjoyed and admired, any conventional novel was going to seem a bit of a step down.

    I also very much like the “widescreen” notion. I’ve read all but the Ing that you mention in the opening — this is the kind of book that I like to sit down with when I want a good extended read that keeps me entertained and occupied but without calling for the sort of attention that a Proust or Dostoevsky would require. Calling them “epics” (which I notice you carefully avoid) adds unnecessary weight, but they do need some description and “widescreen” sure works for me.

  5. Good call, Kevin; Docx’s Self Help fits the bill too. And your comment on previous generations of these books is astute; sadly I’ve read little Conrad and Forster and no Scott or Durrell (though of course have them in the TBR pile).

    Mitchell, incidentally, has written three books besides Black Swan Green; Ghostwritten, Number9dream (the weakest of the three I’ve read) and Cloud Atlas. Rob, I don’t think anyone could fail to be impressed by the virtuosity on display in Cloud Atlas and it is most definitely worth your time. I didn’t feel that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, but I enjoyed so much of it (particularly ‘Letters from Zedelghem’ and ‘The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish’) that it didn’t really matter.

    Rob, I saw your review of Little Monsters and agree it’s a very good book. Oddly, I no longer have a copy as I read it in a horrible Picador proof edition, so now that it’s out in paperback I think I will remedy that. Lambert’s stories are also very good.

  6. Sorry — I forgot about Nybmer9dream, which I haven’t read. And I do look forward to Mitchell’s next book. One of the other observations in your post that I share is looking forward to future novels from these authors. Every name that you mention is not just worth reading now but even more intriguing in terms of future potential, as you do note.

  7. I have been scouring the blogs for mention of Durrell, and Kevin comes through! I picked up Justine the other day and was pulled into the first few pages, but I didn’t buy it. It’s a bit strange that a Nobel contender is now almost never brought up, so I was nervous to devote time and money to reading him without a bit further prompting. Any opinions?

    As for Mitchell: love his work. I really enjoyed Black Swan Green too. Though it didn’t compare to Cloud Atlas, it is better than most other books by other authors. His ability to evoke a convincing voice is as good as ever.

  8. Trevor, you’re right that Durrell is rarely mentioned these days, and it is very strange. Not all of his work is of the standard of say The Alexandria Quartet or Bitter Lemons, but he’s definitely worth exploring – probably starting with those. I’ve not updated it for a year or two, and it’s far from complete, but most of my thoughts on Durrell can be found here.

    I wish more people read him – especially the two titles mentioned above. But I wouldn’t try to read Justine—and definitely none of the other three—as a separate book. The four only really make sense together, as parts of a whole.

    John: thanks for the Mitchell advice. Another one for the list…!

  9. Trevor: I like the Quartet a lot — reread it last year and enjoyed it so much (and knew I would be reading it again) that I invested in the new Folio Society set when it came out a month or two ago. In addition to Rob’s link above (he and I have shared thoughts on Durrell — it is some publisher in Victoria, British Columbia that is reissuing his lesser known titles) I was also very impressed with the following TLS essay on the Quartet:

    He is best known for the Quartet, because it is his best work.

  10. He is best known for the Quartet, because it is his best work.


    It would be my desert island book (also Iain Duncan Smith’s, apparently…)

  11. John, you must read Tokyo Cancelled, it was marvellous. I’d definitely call it a linked story cycle rather than a novel. I found the tales subversive and all had elements of manipulation; some made you very uncomfortable, some made you laugh, all were fantastic in the true sense of the word!

  12. Sorry to bring up the B word, but a couple of booky people have mentioned Solo as a contender for when the Booker sweepstake rolls into town. I read Tokyo Cancelled a few years ago. It was okay. I preferred the brief passages linking the short stories, about the passengers in the airport lounge, than the stories themselves, which were, yes, inventive, but neither profound nor, really, particularly rich in ideas.

    Talking of synchronicity, I bought two books simultaneously last weekend, Ali Smith’s The Accidental and Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight. I began the Smith, first reading the epigraphs. And who should she quote, right at the bottom of the page? Yes! A line from Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight!

  13. If im not mistaken Black Swan Green is Mitchell’s debut so I expected it to be weaker than the rest of his previous novels. Saying that as debuts go it’s quite a good one. I’ll be re-reading Cloud Atlas again soon though and looking forward to it.

    I’ve always wanted to read the Alexandria quartet. My only introduction to Lawrence Durrell has been bitter Lemons of Cyprus, which I enjoyed and made me laugh despite the situation of Cyprus at the time.

    Great review – I’ll definitely check Solo out in the near future! 🙂

  14. Well I may have been one of those booky people, Sam; I mentioned it on the Booker site. That was before I’d read it, but I still think it’s a possibility, along with Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows (then again, Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil didn’t make it last year).

    Anyway nice to have diverging views on Tokyo Cancelled (thanks, gaskella!). It means the only way to resolve the issue is to read it for myself.

    Thanks also for the Durrell details, Kevin and Rob (nice website, R.) – Faber publish a nice edition of the Quartet which is remarkably slim for a 900 page book, so that looks like the way to go. But I really really am not buying any more books for a while, particularly as several of the ones I want to get through soon are pretty big (Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke, which I’m currently reading; Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin; Frank O’Connor’s My Oedipus Complex, which is not that long but does comprise 30 stories so needs to be paced appropriately; oh and the Dostoevsky and Proust I picked up last week… sigh).

    Sam, you have raised the synchronicity stakes significantly with that one. I will have to try to think of one to top it. I hope you like the books: I found myself lukewarm toward The Accidental – it was nicely written but seemed to be trying a bit too hard. But then when others criticised it for its ambition I got all defensive and decided I liked it more than I probably did. And I gave up on Journey by Moonlight quite early on, probably because I was hoping for some alchemical reaction (it’s about a honeymoon in Venice, something I had experienced just a few months earlier) which never arrived. Or not in the short time I allowed it.

    (EDIT: Thanks deucekindred. In fact Black Swan Green was Mitchell’s fourth novel, his most recent to date. However as it was so obviously based on a character like him growing up, he quipped that “it was about time I wrote my first novel” which may be where you got that from.)

  15. Rather like you, I like The Accidental more now I’ve finished it than I did while reading it over the weekend. It’s not as clever as it likes to think it is, but Smith is extremely skillful at free indirect style – every now and then I felt as if I was glancing along the character’s brains – and the way she handled Magnus and his guilt over the schoolgirl’s suicide was pretty breathtaking, I thought. And the way she made you think of things in new ways! She said something about how it was strange that we speak of a photograph as being taken, and I think I looked up from the book and spent the next few minutes wondering why that might be, and finished up convincing myself that all photographs were taking time, stealing time. And then I thought of Susan Sontag’s comment that all photographs are about death… Thought-provoking is a reviewerly cliche, but as the representation of cliche is one of Smith’s concerns in this book, I don’t feel too bad about describing the book as one that provoked some thoughts.

    Journey by Moonlight will have to wait. I’ve just discovered Graham Greene, and, one and a half books in I think it’s safe to say that I’m not going to be reading anyone else for a while yet…

    Anyway, Dasgupta, yes, it’d be good to see what you make of his story-cycle. I’ve not got the best temperament for magical-realist, Arabian Nights-type stuff, so I should probably never have picked it up in the first place.

  16. Just an intrusion after Sam’s comment on photography’s death aura. I was also surprised by Sontag’s idea. I think she may have been quoting Roland Barthes’s ‘Lucid Camera’, a beautiful essay where he describes photographs as ‘death certificates’

  17. Excellent! I’ll look up that Barthes essay. Sounds illuminating. Thanks!

    And I can definitely recommend Sontag’s book on war photography, Regarding the Pain of Others.

  18. Yes, that’s so great. I like much better her essays than her novels. I had the privilege of hearing her some years ago, precisely explaining the way she conceived that book. It’s so sad that she died so young. Thanks Sam!!

  19. Crikey, Sontag! Someone I’ve never read – unless you count the first few pages of her novel The Volcano Lover – though that might change soon, both because of your recommendations and because several of her books will be published in Penguin Modern Classics in the coming months…

    Graham Greene, eh? If you’re a newcomer, you may or may not know that the essential titles (most would agree, I think) are The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair, with secondary but also strongly recommended titles including Brighton Rock and The Quiet American. I am also a fan of his later novel The Honorary Consul which is ‘lighter’ in tone than most of his best known stuff but very good nonetheless. Indeed, in my own Greene phase which would have been 15 years or so ago now, I came to like almost everything, even the ‘novelty’ ones like Dr Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party. I must admit that the appeal of some titles, like Travels with My Aunt, The Human Factor and Our Man in Havana eluded me, though I would like to reread the last two. In any event, you have a very pleasurable journey ahead of you.

  20. Ah I see – thanks for the clarification! 🙂

    Personally I loved The Accidental here’s my (not very well written) review


    re Greene My starting point was the 21 short stories (this was some 15 years ago) and it gives you a good overview of the themes that he tackles in his other books. Probably my favourite novels are The End of the Affair and The Heart of the Mater.

  21. Thanks, both! I read The Quiet American first, purely because the introduction was written by one Zadie Smith (fickle? who? me?) and I’m now reading The Heart of the Matter (introduction by James Wood – I know, I know…) Really looking forward to reading more by him, regardless of who writes the introductions.

  22. has anyone here read vikram chandra’s collection of interconnected short stories ‘love and longing in bombay’? it won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (Eurasia region), and was short-listed for the Guardian Fiction Prize.

    reading the stories, i got the same feeling – that he might be better at the short story form than at longer works. i have not read his newest book ‘sacred games’, though,so i cannot really say.

    1. I’ve read both ‘Love and Longing…’ and his first novel ‘Red Earth and Pouring Rain’. I personally preferred the novel, but I’m pretty sure I missed out on a lot in the short stories.
      In either case, he writes novels well, too.

  23. Here’s a link to Max’s review of Love and Longing, Sherin — . He and I have been debating which one of us will read Sacredhttp://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/category/vikram-chandra/ Games first, given its length — if you would undertake the task, we’d both appreciate it. Cheers, Kevin

  24. ‘love and longing in bombay’ is one of the most satisfying books that i have read this year, and i am a bit surprised by that. for me generally, reading of places that i am so familiar with, can take away from the delight of discovery that reading brings. this book was a wonderful exception.
    the insight and compassion towards his characters, and the elegance of his sentences are rare. (brings to mind rohinton mistry’s books – another indian writer writing in english, that i really liked, for his look at a community so secluded in its uniqueness and smallness as the parsis)

    after reading ‘love and longing in bombay’ i feel as happy as if i had just read a maughm or a saki or a mansfield. i would love to read ‘sacred games’ if i can find a copy in my small town.

    1. and, i really liked sartaj singh. interesting how he is both brave and cowardly, kind and ruthless, at the same time. a really complex, well-layered character.

      1. Thanks for your comments Sherin. Looks as though Chandra is another one to add to the list. I quite enjoyed Mistry’s Family Matters but I gather A Fine Balance is really the one to read.

  25. I think I might read Solo. It looks promising.

    I think you’re right about “widescreens”. I wonder if it’s a predominantly British (or English-speaking phenomenon). We secretly think that, being British, we should be able to write about the whole world and understand it all.

    I tend to be sceptical of this kind of exoticism. A lot of the most impressive contemporary authors I’ve read (e.g. J. M. Coetzee, Philip Roth, Gabriel García Márquez, Orhan Pamuk, Marilynne Robinson…) tend to focus myopically on their own culture and experiences, and the stories seem to come out more intimate and authentic as a result.

    1. Not at all an exclusively Brit tendency, I assure you. Even Indians – like Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Vikram Chandra, and Tarun J Tejpal – do these things.

  26. I’m sure he’ll be delighted to know that, Serio. Praise is praise, after all. (And what low part of me is it that wants to search for an image of him in response to your comment?)

    Jonathan, a good point. The great American novelists, after all, write about America. I was going to suggest it’s a throwback to the British Empire, a desire to create a novel that the sun will never set on, but I’m not sure how that ties in with the fact that most of the writers doing this (that I’ve identified above) are either from former colonies, or descendants thereof. (Aslam and Shamsie were born in Pakistan; Dasgupta was born in Canterbury but now lives in Delhi.)

  27. It’s kind of ironic. Writers from the former colonies (and perhaps we can add Salman Rushdie to the list) have often done the sort of globetrotting that was once done by Britons who travelled to the colonies. I suppose in some sense these novelists can’t help but see the world through a British lens.

    1. see the world through a british lens? not for a lot of second generation young writers, born to non-british immigrant parents, and young indian writers writing in english.
      rushdie, vikram seth, vikram chandra, amitav ghosh, rohinton mistry, arundhati roy…..all of them have had the benefit of english education (either in india or outside), and they all seem to be very confident in bending the language to do their bidding, but can one say that they see the world through a lens alien to their own culture?

      1. Well okay, the idea of a “British lens” is asking to be deconstructed. Any writer will have many influences. But I am only suggesting that perhaps being born in Britain, being educated in Britain, or even writing in English will give you a certain perspective on the world that you wouldn’t have had without the British influence.

  28. I have a copy of Tokyo Cancelled that always looks at me in an insistent but far from desperate way from the shelf. Have you read that? And I see Dasgupta has made it onto the ‘Not the Booker Prize (or whatever it’s called) Prize’ on the Guardian website (and I noticed your comments on there; when when when do you get the time, John?).

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