by Rana Dasgupta

This, Dasgupta’s second novel, tells you everything you ever wanted to know about Bulgaria – and an awful lot of things you didn’t realise you wanted to know, too. Split into two halves, the story is anchored around one point: the protagonist, a blind Bulgarian centenarian named Ulrich.

boom book reviews - Solo by Rana Dasgupta - book cover

The first half of the book centres on Ulrich’s personal history, which begins in post-Ottoman empire, pre-Communist Sofia. Ulrich begins his life passionate about music, and then about chemistry, and we see each of these taken from him at the hand of his parents and then the new Communist regime that redistributes their wealth. Even Ulrich’s personal relationships don’t survive intact – he is forced to leave behind his first love when his parents can no longer support his university education; his childhood friend, Boris, is murdered at the hands of the Communists; his wife leaves him with their child, named Boris in memory of his friend, never to be seen again. Ulrich clings to the one thing he has left – his fascination with chemistry – until he is forced to retire, and his domestic experimentation ends up claiming his sight. Ulrich’s remaining solitary days are confined to a shabby tower block, and it is this Ulrich that tells the story of his life – and of Bulgaria’s recent history – through his memories.

The second half feels quite disconnected to the first. No longer is each section prefaced with the day-to-day realities of Ulrich the centenarian’s life, before reviewing the important parts of his history; instead, the second half is introduced as a collection of his daydreams. The reader is cast adrift into this flow of new stories and characters that initially feel a million miles apart from Ulrich. Yet there are echoes of Ulrich here, even though he is not present: one character is obsessed with music; one character’s mother is a drunken shell of her former self; somebody has a son and calls him Boris. These echoes multiply if you look hard enough. These daydreams blur the facts of Ulrich’s experience and his fantasies to link together the two Boris’ Ulrich knew and loved into a new, daydream Boris, as a way of allowing the lonely centenarian a means of reconnecting with them both.

Solo reminds us that behind every old person is a treasure trove of stories, and that even when everything that seems important to someone is taken away it is possible to find refuge in the universe of possibilities inside our heads. Dasgupta is undoubtedly an extremely talented writer with the ability to construct exquisite prose seemingly effortlessly. However, whilst masterfully written, Solo ends up disorienting the reader in the switch between the first and second halves. Ulrich’s personal story seems to finish quite abruptly only halfway through the book, followed immediately by the seemingly entirely disconnected second half - leaving the reader to wonder why we should care about these new protagonists and their lives, which feel somehow smaller and less developed. The reader ends up playing detective, trying to figure out whether perhaps the stories related in Ulrich’s present-day daydreams might have been inspired by a news story, or people he used to know, or his own experience, or if they are just fantastical imaginings of his own. Mercifully the end of the book hints suggestively at how the two halves connect, though it is quite possible that all but the most determined readers might not get that far. Looking at the positives, this mysterious panoply of connections between the two halves means it would be quite possible to repeatedly read the book and find something new in it each time.

Overall, a bewitching, troubling, and thought provoking read – and well worth the effort.

four out of five