I have a habit of checking how many pages there are in a book before actually beginning to read it. I think this idle question became a habit after I picked up “A Suitable Boy”. It was quite obvious that book was thick and would take time but a couple of hundred pages into it, I became certain that the pages of the book were procreating so that they could silently snigger at me floundering through Seth’s opus. Anyway, the point is when I picked up “Solo” by Rana Dasgupta, it claimed to be 352 pages long. This is a lie. It’s actually 168 pages. I’m not sure what the rest of the pages are but they certainly don’t belong in “Solo”. Maybe Rana Dasgupta figured no one would want him to write another novel with Bulgarian characters so he packed in all the Balkan names that float around his head into this one novel.
Apparently, the second part of the book is made up of the central character Ulrich’s imaginings. Except in the neatly and often beautifully-written first part of the novel, Ulrich seems entirely incapable of dreaming. Fixated upon making plastic even though the material had been discovered years ago and determinedly focussed upon pragmatic details, Dasgupta’s hero is a mulish man rooted in solitude and bland misery. This is not the man who rides on flights of fancy. Dasgupta spent 168 pages establishing this only to leave us with 184 pages of Ulrich’s fantasies, which include a significant period of time in post 9/11 New York in a blighted attempt to be epic. Dasgupta forces the others into the novel with the stubbornness of the stereotypical Indian mother who starts looking for suitable boys and girls for her single child so that the apple of her eye doesn’t live alone. But like many of those single children, Ulrich was doing fine on his own, thank you very much.
It’s annoying as hell because I was really enjoying Ulrich’s story until it insisted on becoming an unwieldy mess. Dasgupta’s language is measured and eloquent when he isn’t trying to be a brilliant poet. His sentences have a cadence when he isn’t tearing his style up in an effort to be musical. The story of the old, blind Ulrich who shuffles about in a dank apartment, surrounded by his imaginary lists and walls that bloat with dampness, is told beautifully. There’s the detachment of hindsight that makes so much of Ulrich’s suffering all the more painful. The world before and after socialism is described so eloquently. Sofia turns into a city of shifting hells and steady cruelties. Ulrich, mediocre and deeply steeped in failure and pain, is a wonderful character that makes you close the book gently each time you need to do something other than read on to finish his story. And then come his “imaginary children” – Boris, Irakli, Plastic and Khatuna – who land upon the story like knives thrown by an inexpert knife thrower. Or, to continue the musical analogy of the book, the solo ends with a coda sung by a discordant chorus.
I persevered with “Solo” because shutting the book before the last page seemed like an unnecessary act of cruelty to Ulrich, as though I would be abandoning him if I stopped reading. But the second part of “Solo” is full of mannered sentences that feel almost pretentious and episodes are written in to make bridges between Ulrich’s dreams and his reality. They’re unnecessary and despite their beauty and genius, I don’t care about any of them. Ulrich’s story is much more poignant, particularly because we’re not allowed into fantasies and forced to sink into the bleakness of his real life. Which is why “Solo” should have ended on page 168. With every paragraph after that page, I kept wondering why Dasgupta would weigh down the slim, well-sculpted story of the mediocre Ulrich with the ungainly characters whose brilliance has the sparkle of sequins: bright but somehow listless. Having finished the book, I’ve still no idea why. Maybe he just didn’t want to leave behind the Bulgaria he had so carefully built up with his thin-fonted words. Perhaps the loneliness actually sets in when the story is finished and all the characters are settled into their neatly-ended fates, leaving behind a writer without the world he’s imagined and lived in for so long. It isn’t necessarily the act of writing a story that’s lonely, after all.