As Rana Dasgupta's novel Solo opens, a nearly one hundred year old Bulgarian named Ulrich sits alone and blind in his rundown Sofia apartment and looks back on his life. He had witnessed a tumultuous span of history in which his native country was battered by the machinations of its more powerful neighbors. Allied with Nazi Germany during World War II, it then fell under the Communist power of the Soviet Union, only to morph into a sort of mafia capitalism after the Iron Curtain fell.
Ulrich is neither a hero nor a villain in all this, just a somewhat passive observer. His own passions, first for the violin, then for the study of chemistry, were both thwarted, and his relationships all ended sadly. This first section (Dasgupta calls it “First Movement”) is titled “Life”, and its chapter titles are all named for chemical elements, which seem to match the clinical detachment with which Ulrich tells his life story. Does this sound like a downer? Well, it is kind of unrelenting. But then as the First Movement comes to an end the narrator observes: “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”. I think the world is full of people who are sometimes sustained by their daydreams.
The Second Movement is called “Daydreams”, and although at first I thought it was just a series of short stories having nothing to do with the first section, it soon becomes clear that these are Ulrich's daydreams - of the children he never had, the life he never lived, the travels he never made. A young Bulgarian violin virtuoso named Boris, and a poor but ambitious young woman from Tbilisi meet in New York, where the musician becomes a sensation. The story has a wildly imaginative and dreamlike quality, a sharp contrast to the first section. Even the chapter titles suggest a sort of exaggerated, underwater,mystical existence – Manatee, Ichthyosaur, Narwhal.
I'm not sure what it's all supposed to mean, but there was an odd sort of harmony between the two sections that left me satisfied.
PS Not many author's have a website quite like this one.