An almost 100-year-old blind man living in a state of penury in Bulgaria has nothing left but his thoughts and memories to keep going as long as he is able to. Ulrich, the main protagonist in Solo, the second book by Rana Dasgupta has no family and his friends have all gone.
Before he loses his sight, Ulrich read about some explorers who chanced upon a community of parrots speaking the language of a society that had been wiped out in a recent catastrophe. They caged the birds and sent them home to enable linguists to record what remained of the lost language. But the parrots, already traumatised by the devastation they had recently witnessed, died on the way. Ulrich feels that like the birds, he too carries a shredded inheritance and is too concussed to pass anything on.
Dasgupta narrates a beguiling story set predominantly in Bulgaria, which is on the fringes of both Europe and Asia and is a melting point of both cultures. The novel is divided into two sections — ‘Life’ and ‘Daydreams’. The ‘everyman’ protagonist is a student of chemistry and in the first half of the book, the chapters are named after chemical elements of the periodic table — Magnesium, Carbon, Barium, Uranium. In this part Ulrich, born in Sofia, recalls his younger days when the Gypsies used to arrive in the city, ‘a swarming settlement of skin tents and fires, filling the bazaars with curiosities from abroad and sowing restless thoughts among the children.’
His father was a railway engineer and his mother, a woman who loved to set out among the villages with a muleteer and pay visits to local women, sketching Belgian peasant costumes. In the first half of the book, Ulrich is the centre of the narrative looking back at his music — his passion of violin, his thirst for chemistry and his encounters with Albert Einstein and his brilliant mathematical theories, which could save a life or destroy it all. There is love too, a failed marriage and losing all contact with his son.
Now living above an abandoned bus station in Sofia, Ulrich is totally dependent on his neighbours. Dasgupta gives us the story of the ‘everyman’ who does not have anything to contribute to society and who could never find his place in a world order.
As the years go by, Ulrich, thinking back, is surprised at the quantity of time he spent in his daydreams. ‘His private fictions have sustained him from one day to the next even as the world itself has become nonsense. His daydreams were a life’s endeavour of sorts and now at the ripe old 10th decade of his life, he feels that even when everything is cast off, his daydreams are still at hand.’
That brings us to the second section of the book — and this is where we are introduced to a whole new cast of characters, mostly fictional children of the main protagonist. This is where the author’s genius comes into play as he merges the ordinary reality of day to day life with fantasy.
A wheelchair-bound Ulrich travels, through his fantasies to Tbilisi in Georgia, New York and Los Angeles and we are introduced to Khatuna, a seductive woman who uses powerful men to climb out of extreme poverty. Then there is Irakli, her sensitive younger brother who writes poems with titles like — The eloquence of a drunkard’s hands when his mouth has stopped producing speech. Others in the cast include Boris, a farm boy who adores pigs, but is a talented vocalist and takes the world by storm through his music, Plastic Murari, a music executive, who encourages his talent and markets it in a capitalist society.
Ulrich is seen again in the second part of the book. Here, he fulfills his ambitions through his fictional son Boris to whom he hands over his gold watch.
The story and the characters of the novel set between 1905 and 2005 continue to stay with you long after you’ve put the book aside. Dasgupta won the Commonwealth Writers Prize Best Book for this novel which was singled out for its “rich cast of odd characters.”