Review: Solo by Dana Dasgupta

Solo Solo by Rana Dasgupta

In Dana Dasgupta’s first book Tokyo Cancelled passengers are stranded in Tokyo. Having nothing to do, they tell each other stories. However, they have a tenuous connection to each other, or the passengers: each has his own stand-alone story. This makes the book more a collection of stories than a novel. But in Solo, Dana’s new book, the stories seem just as tenuous, but Solo, in fact, is a proper novel, not an story anthology. The second story begins in the second half, a tale about a runt of a son of one strong-man Old Petar.

After a disastrous attempt at slaughtering a huge pig at his uncle the mayor’s party, young Petar wins the heart and hand of beautiful Irina. They have Boris, and one cold night they inhale gas in their sleep. This leaves him to be brought up by his grandmother in a deserted town, with pigs for companions. Then there is Khatuna, an accidental birth of a drunken night of sex in the car after an official dinner.

Unconnected, the lives of all these characters still dovetail ultimately. For the main character Urlich his meeting with them, especially Boris, is all but surreal, near the end of the book.
Another connecting thread throughout is music, or rather, the talent or abilities of the characters. For Ulrich, he finally realises that he has no special talent, when he figures out the meaning of what Einstein said to him when he retrieved his dropped papers: ‘I would be nothing without you.’ Ulrich tells Boris: “It was not success he saw written in my face. He saw, rather, that I would never accomplish anything in my life.”

As a youngster he thinks he would become a musician when he grows up, but his ambitions are curtailed, by a father who once had such ambitions, known to him only after his death. So Ulrich decides to be interested in chemistry. Unfortunately he has to cut short his education, and work as a bookkeeper, and a very good one at that. So much so that later the Communists want him to manage the very factory he worked in.

For Khatuna her talent is for business. She survives her country’s economic disaster by succeeding in persuading people to buy her Malboro cigarettes. Which is how she meets Kakha, a rich gangster, whom she loves and marries. The only other person for whom she cares this much is her brother Irakli, who writes poetry. After Kakha gets gunned down, she has to leave the country with Irakli, for fear of the same reprisal. They meet Boris, later, in New York, where he becomes a huge star. Khatuna has a relationship with Plastic, who manages Boris.

All the characters had good comfortable lives in childhood, but have to struggle to survive in later life. Ulrich’s finances run out, and he nearly starves to death, if not for neighbours, who help pay for his electricity and food. Khatuna uses her intelligence and wit, and her wiles, to survive. Boris survives his young life alone, after his grandmother dies, with only his battered violin.

Dana has written a gripping novel, with interconnecting stories, his forte, that tell of extraordinary people struggling against the odds of economic and personal disasters. Your heart is wrenched, to read their stories.

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