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.