Rana Dasgupta is a lyrical novelist with a philosophical bent and an air of prophecy about him. Twin themes seem to absorb him, about life and art. One is the sadness, loss, defeat and disorder that every new order creates — notably including globalization in our era, seen from anything other than the perspective of “mobile money.” Just as compelling somehow is his contrary theme: the flood of human energy and the reckless, irresistibly fascinating “ballistic” speed of innovation and change.
Dasgupta’s real-surreal novel Solo (reviewed here, here and here) won the Commonwealth Prize in London last year. It was singled out by Salman Rushdie, no less, for its “exceptional, astonishing strangeness.” What strikes me in conversation, however, with the astonishing news bursting in from Egypt as we speak, is how familiarly the book and author resonate with events. The sudden contagion of rebellious courage and confidence in dusty, despotic old Cairo fits neatly into the Dasgupta frame of life.
Solo is a novel in two “movements.” The first is a deft, elliptical recounting of the 20th Century from the far backstage of events. It is the mostly sorry tale of Ulrich, an obscure Bulgarian chemical engineer, blind, lonely and blue in in Sofia, in the 100th year of his life. It’s the tale, too, of Bulgaria’s 20th Century devolution from the Ottoman Empire through monarchy, then fascism, then Soviet Communism, then crony capitalism and cheapo turismo. Out of the ruins, so to speak, burst Ulrich’s gaudy “daydreams” of New York, Los Angeles and the global century in the second half of the novel. Boris — a violinist fantasized by Ulrich into world stardom — is an orphan inspired by Gypsy culture and a musical genius on the order of the mythic Orpheus. But the power to imagine Boris and his music is an expression of Ulrich’s hidden genius, too, part of the life he never got to live.
The book itself is an attempt to think about what global culture would be like, which is not to say a culture without any roots, without any human feeling to it. It’s not some sort of digital abstract culture; it is a highly felt culture which in a way tries to restore the human perspective, the human duration into this thing that we call globalization…
I have ambiguous feelings about globalization: I would want my work, and my life, to to be absolutely in this moment that we are living, absolutely conscious of it and aware of it, but, at the same time, to be highly cynical of it and to be deeply in touch with the eternal human story, never to lose sight of the myths, the enormous human resources that have got us this far. I guess I would be highly ambivalent, try to remain fully conscious of the enormous catastrophe we are living through. But never to play down either the enormous excitement and euphoria that modern life offers – of moving through time at this level of change…
One does also have to think about the people who can speak for this global system… the aristocracy of this system, the people who have this kind of effortless movement around it, who celebrate its values, and often who live in places that give them the sense of a rather serene system… They’re kind of in the idylls of global capitalism. Of course that’s not the only experience of it. At the rock-face of it, this system feels like the most destructive system ever to exist. And that turbulence is the weak point of this system… My novel is to some extent about that. It’s about entropy, it’s about the feeling that the creation of order always creates a greater amount of disorder around it. For the people who live in the midst of that disorder, the people who feel themselves to be part of that disorder, it’s a very very different kind of world.
The place to feel and contemplate our 21st Century condition, Rana Dasgupta is saying, might not be
Davos, say, but better the ravaged Congo.