Playing Solo; A Review of Solo By Rana Dasgupta

The book, Solo, is divided into two parts called Life and Daydreaming respectively running us through the memories and image construction of a hundred year old Bulgarian who identifies himself with an old and dying parrot that must somehow cohere together hoary memories of lands and people long extinguished. The name of the centurion is Ulrich, the protagonist of the book, and he takes us through a century’s developments namely British imperialism and the consequent collapse of the Ottoman Empire, nationalism, fascism, socialism and then neo-liberalism tracing in these moments varied responses of the individual who sometimes as a scientist, sometimes as an engineer, or soldier, a fascist, a communist, or a capitalist or even a musician and the critical leftist has tried to hold the system to ransom. Whether it is colonialism, or nationalism, or fascism or communism, the protagonist realizes through his recollections that no system is better than the rest in throttling human freedom and displacing individuals and their livelihoods.

The reminiscences start with the laying of the railways and the father who is the only character whose name the protagonist never mentions is the central to this technological imperialism of the British as the rail system become the weapon through which the British colonialism rips apart the Ottoman world in the course of setting up its own dominance over every conceivable longitude of the earth so that the sun never set on the Queen’s Empire. As the Ottoman Empire crashed, the countries in the Eastern Europe lost the synergy that held them as a labyrinth between Asia and Europe. A major fall out of this was the loss of respectability for Bulgarian music, a rich tradition that was more in line with an older order, synergetic and assimilative. In place of a rich mixture of Europe and Asia came a stern form of nationalism modelled around Germany and which inspired the father of the protagonist to name him Ulrich, unknown in Bulgaria but common in Germany. Germany was the first among nations, both in nationalism as well as in the pursuit of science, pure science, to be precise, chemistry. Ulrich becomes the subject of his father’s macho image and is forced to give up music and as nationalism converts his father from an engineer to a soldier only to return maimed and permanently disabled after the war among nations, the protagonist redirects his passions towards the other aesthetic subject, science. It is difficult to appreciate this passion unless the reader is also aware of the fact that science in Europe was an aesthetic pursuit just as well as music was and hence the mention of Einstein, a scientist who was also a musician.

The book has a few central characters; the main among them being the mother, Elizaveta, feminine, leftist, critical, compassionate, explorer, discoverer, amateur anthropologist and one who believes in people and their bonds rather than the various “isms”. She is repeatedly attacked as a Communist by the fascists and as a capitalist by the Communists. Yet she is a woman of wits and one who can manage to survive despite setbacks. It is through her that Ulrich learns so many of the cultures of the Ottoman people especially in the Turkish village where women celebrate death anniversaries more ardently rather than birthdays. The dead, in the book, as the protagonist says right at the beginning are more numerous than the living and in one of his encounters with Einstein; the scientist tells him that a single story of success is built on numerous failures. The book celebrates individualism and hence its name Solo but at the same time sees through grand personas whose successes lie on the mound of the dead and the forgotten. In a way the novel is a strong critique of individualism as we know through the various “isms” from colonialism to neo-liberalism and the intermediate stages of nationalism, fascism and communism except as when individual agency is asserted for compassion towards other human beings like in his mother, Elizaveta. In many ways Elizaveta is the hero in the novel, the idea of the ideal person and her being a woman and a mother, she becomes both the protagonist’s as well as the author’s assertion against the essential strain of patriarchy that constituted the various hegemonic ideologies of the 20th century.

The other central character is Boris, a boy who is a year older and shares his birthday and in a way metaphorizes the one who runs ahead of him. Boris is a musician and his father is a scientist; the family has both a music room and a science laboratory and it is such a family that produces a martyr in their fight against fascism and for the establishment of communism, namely as Boris is executed. Boris is a strong metaphor also for Ulrich because in the new age of nationalism along the model of Germany, he too was sacrificed as a musician in order to become a scientist. In the latter part of the book concerning the daydreaming Boris gets split into two, one remains as Boris both sacrificing and the sacrificed as his image gets mingled into the sacrificial pig and also to Ulrich’s own father pursuing an image of a macho man; the other part in which he is a poor martyr and also a musician as Irakli who commits suicide. Magdalene, Boris’s sister who marries Ulrich but abandons him for greener pastures in America reappears as Khatuna in the day dreaming sequences, as both are names of women associated with Jesus and Mohammad respectively. They are blasphemously like prostitutes, much in the image of Mary Magdelene and who move from men to men in search of succour. Georgi, an opportunist who is once a Communist and then a capitalist re emerges in the dream as a celebrity who is all bubble and no substance and crashes at the slightest dent in his fortunes.

Ulrich’s faith in science crashes when he sees how large corporations buys up labours of scientists to strike patents, also expressed as a character in the day dreaming sequence as Plastic. Plastic is the cornerstone of German nationalism and its eventual fascism because it is through the discovery of the polymer that man finally shows he can replace nature. Later on Ulrich discovers the curse of man’s defiance of nature as mercury spans the earth and dead fish pile up all along the river into smoggy sunsets. The author, through the voice of the protagonist, traces how science had a lot to do with the rise of belligerent nationalism and fascism, how technology underlay both colonialism and the Soviet Union led Communism and how music that held together a synergy collapsed with the emergence of such divisive forces.

Ulrich’s age of a hundred years is a narrative strategy for the author to trace the story of the 20th century through a single biography and also shows how the present state of destitution of the protagonist is neither his past income nor his accumulated savings but the erosion of currency through inflation that is the most common reason for impoverishment. The first few pages of the book sets the tone by narrating the story of a city that was submerged for a dam and then re emerges when the life of the dam gets over and many things that tell us of the city can still be found as remnants. The author hopes that the essence of life that has vanished beyond recovery through the dominance of technology, corporations and imperial ambitions against human freedom, may well emerge once more to reconnect memories and till then, just as the village that celebrates the death anniversary of its people, the protagonist talks of moments and memories that have been annihilated, executed or accidentally or naturally dead.

Solo can be a rather trying read for readers who are not familiar with the histories of Europe and the Middle East. The book opens out more to those familiar with the history of European painting, jazz music, neo realism in cinema and of course with the famous thesis of the clash of civilizations and our own Khilafat Movement. It is suggested that the reader arranges for herself a reading list that must be thoroughly perused before venturing into the pages of this novel. Solo is definitely intended more for critical acclaim than popular consumption.

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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