switterbug (Betsey)'s Reviews > Solo

Solo by Rana Dasgupta
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Feb 22, 2011

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Read in December, 2010

Bulgaria is not a common locale for English language novels, but the verb "Balkanize" has been disseminated widely, and no longer limited in meaning to just the hostile division of the Balkans. Now, author Rana Dasgupta has given the reader an epic overview of Bulgaria's geopolitical hardships and character, acquainting us with a blemished region often overlooked. The theme that we all go solo, either literally or spiritually, is identified here, in both the Balkanization of a region and of the soul.

There is a new type of fiction written by young, talented, inventive authors, called "altermodernism," and Dasgupta is among them. It is a term coined by Nicolas Bourriaud to describe a type of art within today's global context that is a reaction against standardization and commercialism, stressing the experience of wandering in time, space, and mediums. I mention this primarily to warn that this type of fiction is an acquired taste.

Dasgupta examines the life of centenarian Ulrich, a Bulgarian from Sofia with a German name and German wanderlust. The first half, or "movement" of the novel takes us through Ulrich's difficult life. The second half, "Daydreams," is Ulrich's re-imagined life of repressed dreams flowering into a fabricated existence.

Much cross cutting of events and ideas takes place to realize the fullness of the story. Ironically, the first half, Ulrich's actual life, is more dreamily narrated. The dream-life events of part two are more linear, with a concrete storyline occasionally interrupted by temporal shifts. Certain characters from the first half reenter the dream world but are altered to a different relationship with Ulrich.

Ulrich's desire to become a musician was cruelly arrested by his father. Later, he studied chemistry in Berlin until he was forced to return to Sofia and care for his mother. Ulrich's life of mediocrity and tragedy in part one was re-imagined in part two, which takes the reader to Georgian territory and eventually to the U.S., in New York. A Gypsy musician, a quasi-narcissistic mistress of a gangster, and her bohemian poet brother seem initially disconnected to Ulrich. This is where Dasgupta's style of altermodernism comes into play and unites the two disparate halves.

It took me a while to warm up to this book. The author is a skilled craftsman of descriptive language; however, it was initially too muted and cool for me to engage emotionally. There was a riot of images taunting me like a slide show, but the tale was told through a portal of politics and sociology more than felt. Dasgupta's cerebral approach held the essence of the story suspended above me, or from me. It was educating and coldly visceral, rich in its industrial ugliness, and dryly poetical, yet I felt vaguely outside of it. But, in the last 150 pages, I was hooked, and read it in one intense sitting. The narrative was splintery, immediate, and petulant. The author also used various entry and exit points of the first half and juxtaposed them in the latter part of the story to render a measured gravity. I don't want to say any more except that the author's insurrectionist technique is part of the journey and grip of the tale.

"Life seemed nothing more than a series of improbable accidents, and yet everyone had a sense--didn't they?--that there was something else, deeper and prior, to which they had to return."

As you read, you will feel and anticipate that deeper sense of things, dormant but sharp. Stay. The whole is a provocative sum of its parts.

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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Sonali V I really like your review. I enjoy cerebral books but I wasn't sure where this was leading. You've got me really interested.

switterbug (Betsey) Thank you, Sonali!

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