February 19, 2020
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Fluid Tales

We get sharply etched events, but no underlying fabric of realism. And the two parts of the novel are in different modes

Fluid Tales
By Rana Dasgupta
HarperCollins Pages: 368; Rs. 395
Solo comes blazoned with a blurb from the great Salman himself: "… exceptional … astonishing … most unexpected and original Indian writer of his generation …" Someone should have warned Rana Dasgupta - it is difficult to live down such acclamation. It could have be en the patriarch anointing his successor, except of course that Rushdie is a Pakistani Brit and Dasgupta’s Indianness does not extend much beyond his name and his current address. That said, however, Solo is exceptional and astonishing and strange.

Solo bypasses the famous "anxiety of Indianness" simply by locating his novel in Bulgaria. And this Bulgaria is no imaginary place, even though it has been imagined in formidable historical density. It is a particular place, with its material specificities – sights and sounds - in which recognisable historical figures appear in the background, and particular individuals enact recognisable trajectories – make friends, fall in, and out, of love, commit extravagant crimes and also acts of subtle, baroque generosity. All this might suggest, misleadingly, that Solo is your standard novel. It isn’t.

The first part of the novel consists of the memories of a hundred year man who, now blind, revisits bits and pieces of his unremarkable life and rollercoaster times. All of which could add up to a fairly conventional account of a life and a time. Except that this is a peculiar kind of telling – in which the connecting bits, the narrative ligaments and filiations which might have connected disparate bits seem missing. Solo has a haunting image of a "dancing bear" – and we are told of how the bear is tortured into dance-like behaviour: "It looks like dancing but it’s not." It seems curiously pertinent to Dasgupta’s characters. We get snapshots of behaviour, but not the connective tissue of classical realism. The effect, oddly, is of a kind of strobe-lit realism. The bits that one sees are sharply lit. But the movement is too jerky for the accumulation of affect that makes reality seem "real".

The lack of connective tissue does not appear accidental. The second part of the novel moves abruptly into another mode altogether. And tells sharp, and sharply discrete, action-packed stories in which people and incidents from the first part are present as obscure echoes. One effect is that of suggesting that for any one story one tells – Ulrich in the first part – there are an infinity of other stories happening in the interstices of the narrated reality. Another is that of reinforcing the sense of fragmentation that is implicit in the fraying of connective threads. So far so po-mo.

It’s only fair to say that this is a very well-written book. The language is precise, the sensibility subtle, the narration tight. The occasional verbal lapses appear accidental – simply because they happen alongside inspired linguistic choices, such as in the description of the rutting Magdalena as "luxuriant". Ulrich discovers her in adulterous congress with a preacher. But in that very same sentence, we are also treated to a view of the "…[flapping] fishy foot soles" of that selfsame preacher – which implies too many soles, even for a preacher. For the most part though, Solo is a smooth, competent performance, and what is done is done well indeed. But what that something is remains something of a puzzle. This can’t just be a novel about Bulgaria, right? 

As I read it, Solo enacts the difficulty of narrating a story in the crowded desert of the Now – there is simply too much out there, and no available means, whether of theory or narrative, to pull it into credible shape. So, fragments. Which has of course been the case, at least in some circles, ever since Virginia Woolf identified the radically transformative moment of the Cubist exhibition in London – "In or around December 1910, human nature changed."  The sense of a lost wholeness haunts modernism. And what is distinctive about postmodernism is a loss of that sense of loss – the loss of a framework against which the experience of loss might even be registered. This comes either in light, celebratory flavours – polymorphous perversities, the unbearable lightness of being. Or, sometimes, in darker, bewildered forms – haunted by a sense of loss, but deprived also of the freedom to mourn – the tragedy that cannot speak its name.

The odd combination of talent and pointlessness that characterises Solo seems like some kind of potlatch – the bizarre custom identified by anthropologists wherein status is demonstrated by the magnitude of what one can squander and waste. At one level, Solo is an exploration of "failure", and contains the suggestion that it takes a lot of failure to make some signal success. It is an interesting thought, and also a curious advertisement for Dasgupta’s next book.

A shorter, edited verstion of this review appears in print

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