Rana Dasgupta’s new novel about failed man, failed nation

December 15th, 2008 - 9:53 am ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, Dec 15 (IANS) It could well be a leaf out of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” or even “Arabian Nights”, say critics. British Indian writer Rana Dasgupta’s new novel, “Solo”, is about the life and daydreams of a 100-year-old man.Slated for release in India in February 2009 by Harper Collins, the book is not set in the fictional Macondo as in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magnum opus, but in war-torn Bulgaria of the early 20th century.

“At the root of ‘Solo’ is alienation - a nation’s estrangement from traditions and culture on the road to modernity,” novelist Rana Dasgupta, 37, who has been living here for the last eight years, told IANS.

” ‘Solo’ is very different from my first book, it is a novel with one character. And it is an attempt to understand failure - failed men in a failed country. And a country with a failed history that gave up its culture to become a nation,” Dasgupta said.

Initial reviews rate “Solo” as a classic. According to Andrew Staffell, Time Out, London, “Only the most-gifted writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jonathon Safron-Foer can hold the surreal and real in a satisfying equilibrium. This elite now welcomes Rana Dasgupta to its fold.”

The Guardian describes it thus: “These stories. Ah! They outdo the Arabian Nights for inventiveness. One closes the book with head spinning.”

The tale revolves around Ulrich, a Bulgarian, who reads a story in a magazine before losing his sight: a group of explorers came upon a community of parrots speaking the language of the society that had been wiped out in a recent catastrophe.

Astonished by this discovery, they put the parrots in cages and sent them home so that linguists might record what remained of the lost language. But the parrots, already traumatised by the devastation they had recently witnessed, died on the way.

Wondering if, unlike these parrots, he has any wisdom to leave to the world, the old man embarks upon an epic armchair journey through the twists and turns of his country’s turbulent century, of lost love and failed chemistry. And finds enlightenment.

Bulgaria, said Dasgupta, joined the wrong side in every war. “It had been occupied several times, had been taken over by the (erstwhile) USSR. My character does not do very well in history,” Dasgupta said.

The country, which was set up after the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78 following the treaty of San Stefano, has a chequered political history. In 1912-13, Bulgaria became involved in the Balkan wars and during World War I, it found itself on the losing side because of its alliance with central powers.

In 1944, the USSR declared war on Bulgaria and ravaged the tiny land-locked nation.

The author was also interested in Bulgaria for another reason - music. “I have no personal connection with Bulgaria, barring a couple of encounters with Bulgarian music. Bulgaria had a rich and maverick musical tradition during the pre-war era that included Turkish, Macedonian, Serbian, Arabian and Gypsy music. Bulgaria was a part of the Turkish empire for 500 years,” Dasgupta said.

Ulrich, said Dasgupta, wanted to be a musician, but his father forbade him to be one. “The music attracted me because Bulgaria started off this century with lots of music, but the Communists banned traditional music because they wanted to make Communist music.

“The country as it matures into a nation loses more music in an attempt to produce something Bulgarian. It is a poignant metaphor - to create a country, it had to ban everything. ‘Solo’ is a book about what it is to become a nation and what are the things one has to lose to become a nation,” Dasgupta said.

The author, who is working on another book about Delhi, will read from “Solo” at the Jaipur Literary Festival Jan 21-24. “I have lived in Delhi for almost eight years and it is time I write a book on the city,” he said.

Dasgupta’s debut novel, “Tokyo Cancelled” published in 2005, was a collection of 13 fairytale-like folktales, which have been translated into nine languages.

Born in Canterbury in Britain, Dasgupta grew up in Cambridge and studied at Balliol College, Oxford, the Conservatoire Darius Milhaud in Aix-en-Provence and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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