SOLO by Rana Dasgupta

Book Quote:

“Thinking back, he is surprised at the quantity of time he spent in daydreams. His private fictions have sustained him from one day to the next, even as the world itself has become nonsense. It never occurred to him to consider that the greatest portion of his spirit might have been poured into this creation. But it is not a despairing conclusion. His daydreams were a life’s endeavor of sorts, and now, when everything else is cast off, they are still at hand.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate В (Mar 6, 2011)

How do you write about failure?

Early in this book, its protagonist, Ulrich, a young Bulgarian man studying chemistry in Berlin, is walking down a corridor after Albert Einstein, who drops a sheaf of papers. When he picks them up and runs after the great man, Einstein thanks him by saying “I would be nothing without you.” Much later in life, after his own career has been a failure by all outward measures, and life has almost been crushed out of him by Soviet austerity, Ulrich comes to learn more about Einstein and his callousness to some of those closest to him, and realizes that genius feeds off the failure of others. “The people close to him were blocked up and cut off. Their lives were subdued, and they were prevented from doing what they hoped to do. […] How many stopped-up men and women does it take to produce one Einstein?” Ulrich realizes that when Einstein spoke those words, “it was not success he saw written in my face. He saw, rather, that I would never accomplish anything at all.”

I suspect that this insight might have been the genesis of this daring novel. How might it have been for a non-Einstein, a scientist forced to abandon his studies, a musician without a violin, a human being neutered by a grey regime? What might he have had to offer the world other than dreams? Seeing that Dasgupta gives his novel a musical title, and calls its two parts “movements,” I also suspect that his musical inspiration might have been Bela Bartok’s “Two Portraits for Violin and Orchestra” of 1908. This is a two-movement composition reworking the same material in two contrasted ways, the first elegiac and slow, and the second frenetic and distorted. This is exactly the structure of Dasgupta’s novel: a first part about a life lived in shades of grey, followed by a second dream-life in strident color.

The concept is daring because it deals with mediocrity and failure in a strikingly bipolar way. But Dasgupta’s ideas require him to generate enough momentum to keep one reading through the Slavic gloom of Ulrich’s deterioration in the first part and present the second as a convincing and relevant reworking of the material. Unfortunately, in order to emphasize the contrast between the two “movements,” the author shoots himself in the foot. The second part, despite a certain flashy vulgarity, is not uninteresting, but you have to get through the first part in order to reach it — 160 pages devoid of music, poetry, or inner beauty. For instance, we first see Ulrich as a young boy fascinated with music. His mother buys him a violin, but when his father returns from a business trip some months later, he throws the instrument into the fire. This happens on page 18, and from then on there is virtually no music in the first part of the book — not even in the writing, which is dry and declarative almost throughout: this happened; then that happened; then something else.

Ulrich transfers his interests to chemistry. He gets to study in Berlin, but has to abandon his degree when his parents lose their money. Back in Sofia, he works as a clerk, then as the manager of a chemical factory charged with impossible goals in each successive Five Year Plan. His romantic life fizzles out in failure. Now retired, blind, poor, and nearing 100, all he has are the daydreams which form his legacy. Or so we are told. The first part ends with the quotation I offer above, but this is the first we hear of any daydreams at all. By depriving Ulrich of any inner life in the first part, Dasgupta sets up his contrast all right, but he deprives the reader also.

Ulrich’s daydreams make up the second movement, and they restore at least some of the music that had vanished so completely earlier. But it is a savage music, a grotesque scherzo. It begins almost as a series of short stories: a near-feral boy playing on an old fiddle in an abandoned factory, the beautiful but impoverished daughter of a former princess who marries a Georgian gangster and takes on much of his ruthlessness, and an American record producer credited with the invention of world music as a popular genre. Eventually, these strands interweave. Dasgupta has gifts as a storyteller, and there is a color, an energy, a wild poetry here that the first part lacks. But he is a self-conscious writer who now seems determined to bring in all the hues he had previously denied. His moments of ecstasy go over the top, and there is too much reliance on drugs, alcohol, and sex. None of these characters is entirely likeable, and this second part also reflects the wanton hardness, squandering of resources, and disregard for humanity that made the first part so distasteful. Yet at least this preserves an element of truth in the fun-house mirror, in a way a more sentimental ending might not.

Nonetheless, this novel about a mediocrity is by no means mediocre itself. It is an original concept that might work for other readers. So let’s end with Ulrich passing his legacy to Boris, the dream alter-ego whose violin playing has rocketed him to stardom: “I have a lot of failure to give away. Look at my music: a fantastic failure. A triumphant failure. That’s the legacy I leave behind. If I could make an Einstein with my failed science, think what will come of my music!”

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 25 readers
PUBLISHER: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (February 1, 2011)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More music melded with literature:

An Unfinished Score by Elise Blackwell


March 6, 2011 В· Judi Clark В· No Comments
Tags: , ,  В· Posted in: Balkans, Commonwealth Prize, Literary, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

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