4 out of 5: Solo by Rana Dasgupta is a diptych of a novel composed of two related but independent halves. In the first half, a blind, 100-year-old Bulgarian man named Ulrich reminiscences about his life from the vantage point of his squalid apartment overlooking a train station in Sofia, the Bulgarian town in which Ulrich spent the vast majority of his life. Though graphically limited, Ulrich’s life touches many of the important moments in modern history, beginning with the last years of the Ottoman Empire and continuing through both World Wars, the Nazi and Russian occupations, post-war Communism, and eventually up to contemporary, independent Bulgaria.
Ulrich’s imaginative life is just as vivid as his actual life, and the second half of Solo is made up of Ulrich’s daydreams. Beginning as a series of distinct stories and characters, Ulrich’s daydreams become gradually more intricate and interrelated. Ulrich’s imaginative “children” include a young, ambitious Georgian woman and her shiftless brother, a Bulgarian musical prodigy, and an American executive of a record company. Their stories converge in contemporary New York City, where Ulrich inserts himself as a character in his own daydreams. In lush prose, Solo confronts the consequences of abandoned dreams and explores the relationship between life as it is lived in reality and as it unfolds in the imagination. Many of Ulrich’s creations stretch credulity (How does an elderly, blind Bulgarian man know about the internal politics at an American record company?), but these flights of fancy don’t detract from the overall effect. Ultimately, Solo suggests the life of the mind can be just as soul-sustaining as the life of day-to-day reality:
Thinking back, [Ulrich] 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. It never occurred to him to consider that the greatest portion of his spirit might have been poured into this creation. But it is not a despairing conclusion. His daydreams were a life’s endeavor of sorts, and now, when everything else is cast off, they are still at hand.