In a February 3 reading at the Harvard Book Store, author Rana Dasgupta described the challenges of recreating history in his second novel, “Solo,” which follows the life of a Bulgarian centenarian. Dasgupta shared passages with a small but engaged audience about the early life of the main character, Ulrich, just before World War I. In the rest of the novel, he lives a long life of missed opportunities and lingering regrets that begin to manifest themselves as daydreams and fantasies.
The author overcame the challenges of writing about a character so different from himself through extensive research, saying that before working on the novel, he had considered Bulgaria a forgotten country, remote from the history of the 20th century. Dasgupta said that he hopes ”Solo” will show his readers how remarkable a seemingly mundane life can be.
“One of the very critical things that this book was trying to do,” said Dasgupta, “was to think about time … how one could create a sense of great duration in human life without there being lots and lots of great achievements.”
In discussing his influences, he credited Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky and his ability to narrate ‘empty’ time with intensity. Dasgupta also used films more directly in his research, explaining that Bulgarian films and documentaries helped him to recreate the history of the country.
Although he was unfamiliar with the historical setting before beginning the novel, his lack of “organic attachment” to Bulgaria did not deter Dasgupta from telling the story of the 20th century from the perspective of a bookkeeper from that region. However, he was modest about the thorough research he undertook to recreate the lives of 20th century Bulgarians.
“Even when you know the sequence of political events, you don’t really know how people lived,” said Dasgupta. “You have to know what objects people had in their houses, what things were available to eat.”
The core of his research consisted of interviews with native Bulgarians. They confirmed Dasgupta’s strong hunch that the region, despite being overlooked in most British history books, has a rich collection of personal narratives from two world wars, the rise and fall of communism, and renewed hope in the 21st century. Finishing his research in Bulgaria, Dasgupta then asked a local literary critic if Ulrich’s story could seem plausible to a native Bulgarian. He said that the critic responded, “you’ve just told me the story of the life of my father.”
Although he ultimately chose an unfamiliar setting and topic for “Solo,” Dasgupta feels that he could also have written a novel about his own life or the experiences of his family. He explained the decision to set “Solo” in Bulgaria by noting that he prefers not to talk about himself, and enjoys the process of learning through his writing. He continued that although he believes in the value of writing what one knows, he nevertheless feels that it is important to take risks in writing.
“Personally, in my own life, I think that writing should feel dangerous. It should feel like you could screw up, you could go wrong, you could fail,” he said.
Dasgupta said that one of his main goals in “Solo” was to “express the feeling of living [away] from the great centers of the world.” Although he says it is important for art to portray what lies outside the ‘great centers,’ the author is ultimately ambivalent about the experience of living on the periphery. Ulrich only sees opportunity for himself at the end of his life, a change in perspective that Dasgupta connects to Bulgaria’s new status on the global stage.
Ultimately, Dasgupta hopes that readers will feel “a level of empathy” while reading “Solo.” “There is a sense that places like [Bulgaria] can supply to you,” he said. “If you look at the places at the center of the world, you see the incredible achievements in a place like New York. If you were to look at that and take that to be the … totality, you would be missing the great sense of the system that we’re living in.”