ONE LIFE TO LIVE

A fever dream of the last century seen through the eyes of a 100-year-old Bulgarian man

Written by Amulya Gopalakrishnan | Published:March 8, 2009 5:00 pm

A fever dream of the last century seen through the eyes of a 100-year-old Bulgarian man
Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms inside your head,and people in them,acting.

People you know,yet can’t quite name,” wrote Philip Larkin.

Solo,Rana Dasgupta’s new novel,is like a fever dream of the last century seen through the ageing eyes of Ulrich,a Bulgarian man looking back on a hundred years of high historical drama and a no less eventful inner life.

Bulgaria,in the interstices of Asia and Europe,is gripped by a giddy sense of possibility in the 1900s — Ulrich’s father,a railway engineer,sees his work as a philosophical calling,dreaming of the planet “wrapped in twin lines of steel and given over,finally,to science and understanding”. He instructs a terrified peasant woman not to look at the poppies outside her window “for they race more rapidly than your senses can apprehend. Look instead at the church spires and mountains in the distance,whose movements are more steady. For this is the vision of our new times,we have been liberated from the myopia that kept human being peering at our own miserable patch of earth…. From now on,they shall see far,and look upon a common future!”

Competing visions of the common future,of course,tore the country apart and Ulrich’s story meekly follows his times. His obsession with the violin,his later consuming love for chemistry are thwarted by circumstances,and he quietly submits. He lets life grow over his traumas,covering them smoothly like they never were. There are some moments when Ulrich unravels,like when his wife leaves him for another man,parting him from his baby son,and when his politically minded mother is briefly taken away to a concentration camp. But,for the most part,he adjusts to the rolling of political seasons in Bulgaria,working in a no-name chemical factory,even telling on his beloved supervisor and briefly featuring as an “ordinary hero” on Radio Sofia for installing a new reactor. Later,when the country is dismantled and recomposed again,and shrines to Ronald Reagan are being put up,Ulrich realises that he has lived too long,seen statues pulled down too many times,that the “human frame could not hold up if the world was destroyed too many times and remade again”. Is his own life a failure? What could once have been answered with an easy “Yes” now confounds him. He “does not know what it means for a life to succeed or fail…. A life is just a quantity; and he can no more see failure in it than he can see failure in a pile of earth,or a bucket of water”. And what constitutes Ulrich’s life anyway? Is it to be measured by the bare biographical signposts,people encountered and experiences piled up,or is it also what took up the greatest portion of his spirit,the “private fictions that sustained him from one day to the next,even as the world itself has become nonsense”?

Dasgupta is a tremendously gifted writer,and his sentences glide on gracefully. Appropriately enough,the narrative tone in the first half is slightly fusty and elegant,and the second half is racier and freer. There are several passages like the glancing description of a bride getting ready,or a roomful of Georgian dignitaries awaiting Brezhnev’s arrival,that are superbly atmospheric. Only very rarely,when the storytelling stops to describe the rain,the caressing of details can seem a bit much,susceptible to what the critic James Wood calls “an exaggeration of the noticing eye”. The trippy poetry in the second half also occasionally threatens to tip the novel into bathos.

The second half of Solo is a series of connected stories,about tumult of a different kind. A young man,Boris,grows up alone in an abandoned town,practising gypsy music. A girl called Khatuna can go to any length to undo family dishonour. Her brother,Irakli,writes deep verse and seems to mourn some infantile world of connection with Khatuna. The stories take you to ornate Russian bars smelling of incense and cigar smoke,Fashion TV on every wall and beautiful,available women; to the high-security mansions of Georgia’s rich; and to the music industry’s maws in New York. And as you go on reading,Ulrich reappears seeking his lost son. Albert Einstein,who flits through the novel,is quoted again. Phrases reappear,images recur. Are these stories simply visions that sprouted from the material in Ulrich’s life? How could Ulrich,confined in Bulgaria with no concept of the outside world (at one point he poignantly experimented with plastics,reinventing what had been in use for decades everywhere else),have dreamed up hip parties in New York or the manoeuvrings of the record business with such exactitude? It doesn’t matter. Like Ulrich,there is an underworld of fantasy billowing beneath the surfaces we present to the world. Solo succeeds in some ineffable way,and both Ulrich’s life and his daydreams are compelling stuff.

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