Saturday, February 28, 2009

Chemical Brothers

This is from the latest issue of Tehelka.

SOLO Rana Dasgupta

In Jorge Luis Borges’s story, ‘Funes the Memorius’, a 19-year old finds himself in possession of a perfect memory, enabling him to remember every aspect of his life. He is, however, “almost incapable of general, platonic ideas”, recalling only details. Borges’s point is that some level of abstraction is a vital component of thought, of what makes us human. In Rana Dasgupta’s Solo, we find Funes’ antithesis: a character who, with what he recalls, fashions an alternative universe more vivid than reality.

This is Ulrich, a man nearing the end of “his life’s tenth decade”, now sightless (another echo of Borges) and ruminating over his past. From a squalid flat in Sofia, Bulgaria – a city in which he’s spent most of his life – he recollects his early fascination with the violin, his years in Berlin studying chemistry, a short-lived marriage to his charismatic friend Boris’s sister, working as a book-keeper, a fractious relationship with his mother and his supervision of a barium chloride plant.

These personal events are inevitably influenced by Bulgarian history: its Asiatic past, the tussle of fascist and communist parties between world wars, Soviet fiefdom and after. This life of another alienated man without qualities takes up half of the book and just as you begin to wonder what the point is, you reach the second half, comprising Ulrich’s daydreams “of strong young people filled with the courage he never had” -- inspired by a tale of parrots being the sole repository of the language of a vanished world.

At this point, Dasgupta turns a kaleidoscope to re-arrange the elements of Ulrich’s life into new patterns, depicting the other side of the chemical equation. Ulrich’s creations bestride New York City, a place he has never visited. Boris, an abandoned Bulgarian violinist, captivates the world with his art; Khatuna, a strong-willed woman from Tblisi rises via a series of relationships with powerful men; and Iraki, her brother, finds his poetic soul at odds with the environment into which he is thrust.

No object or locale is too humdrum to be transformed by Ulrich’s Bulgarian-stamped glasses, from a makeshift urinal to a Woolworth Building postcard to pig-farming to violin shops to the marbles that clink in the pocket of a village fool. As Ulrich says about music and chemistry, “an infinite range of expression can be generated from a finite number of elements”.

In scope and ambition, then, Solo is breathtakingly audacious. That tremendous care has been taken over craft is evident even from a cursory glance at the chapter headings of the sections, or “movements” as they are called. The first comprises chemical elements – “Magnesium”, “Chlorine”, “Carbon” – which morph, in the second, into creatures of the deep: “Narwhal”, “Beluga”, “Dugong”.

Some transformations are pleasingly organic, such as in the two characters of Boris. Others are more contrived, such as TV and newspaper reports about a sportsman-turned-racketeer who becomes, in the daydream, Khatuna’s powerful protector. And some are merely playful, as in the character of music impresario Plastic Munari, an amalgam of Ulrich’s fascination with plastic and knowledge of uranium.

There’s a cool, ironic gloss to Dasgupta’s prose, at odds with the subject matter: “Life happens in a certain place for a certain time. But there is a great surplus left over, and where will we stow it but in our dreams?” Solo can, of course, also be read as a parable for the nature of creation itself: with what materials do we fashion art, and how does it make its way in the world?

At a time when so many novels in English, especially those from India, cleave to late-stage Romanticism, it’s satisfying to come across one in the camp of high Modernism. However, though Dasgupta’s disaffected surrealism enables one to stand back and admire the artisanship of his mirrored ball of angled reflections, the same quality makes it difficult to lose oneself in his self-conscious art.

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