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"Solo" by Rana Dasgupta

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Rana Dasgupta has divided “Solo” into halves: the “First Movement: Life” and “Second Movement: Daydreams.” The “Life” part recounts the mundane days of Ulrich, a man who has lived almost the entire 20th Century, and even some years into the 21st. The “Daydreams” section … one could argue that this part of the book, vivid as it is, is all in Ulrich’s mind.

The first section feels lengthy, and I leaned toward despair of finding any point to it. Ulrich, from Sofia, fails while a boy to pursue his passion for the violin. He marries but after a few years his wife takes their young son and moves to America. Ulrich helps run a Bulgarian chemical plant, but his audit of his own plant’s figures leads him to turn his boss in to the authorities. After retiring, he blinds himself in an accident with chemicals. He cranks along, on and on, and he approaches his last days, living across from a transit depot. Through all this, I waited for Mr. Dasgupta’s stance, his theme. I found it, much to my gratified and awed amazement, in the second part of the book.

The “Life” section, dealing with Ulrich’s own narrative, has a random-seeming episode in which Ulrich, at university in Berlin, picks up and returns a sheaf of papers Dr. Einstein inadvertently dropped, and the great physicist jests, “I am nothing without you.”

Let’s rush forward to the second movement, “Daydreams,” the more vividly-told of the two, which is set in the present day, and revolves around the vortex that is Boris. Boris, an eccentric musical genius – a violin player, naturally – attracts other characters which give the author a chance to make moral statements about the state of former Soviet bloc countries. The specific countries are Bulgaria and Georgia, both of which have been plunged into varying depths of economic chaos and lawlessness. But Boris is the focus. Ulrich, the narrative states, makes a trek to New York and approaches Boris to tell him of his theory of the one and the many.

Ever since his chance encounter with Einstein, Ulrich, never a very effective or up-to-date scientist, imagines that it must take many, many lesser scientists to make up one Einstein. And, he tells Boris, it must take many, many run-of-the-mill violin players to make up one genius like Boris. The author, then, crowns and unifies his terrific novel with this conceit. Mr. Dasgupta posits in “Solo” a relationship: it requires a vast number of lesser players to form a pool big enough (or to generate enough ideas and energy, maybe?) for a single shining genius. Ulrich knows he is one of the rank and file, and his second-half adventures, the “Daydreams” are essentially impossible. He cannot see, but yet he gazes at the lights in Times Square, and visits the iconic Woolworth Building. He sees his collegiate sweetheart there, though she’s been dead many years.

In this powerful, vivid, thought-provoking, and challenging novel, the author gives us a set of ineffable tools with which to reach an understanding about art and science, genius and plodding rote. And to add to the genius of this novel, he places it all in the imagination of an ordinary man of no particular ability or distinction. Superbly done! Get yourself through the flightless first half of this book, because your efforts will be rewarded many times over in the second.
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