Flying solo

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 March, 2009, 12:00am

There's the kind of highbrow buzz around the recently published Solo, Rana Dasgupta's second novel, that would warm the heart of any publisher. Readers, too, are excited about the prospect of Dasgupta developing the promise abundant in 2005's acclaimed Tokyo Cancelled. That strange and compelling debut, written in the spirit of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales but set in a generic 21st-century airport transit lounge, was shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize.

Chances are that Solo will consolidate Dasgupta's reputation; publishing industry insiders are talking about a 'new Salman Rushdie' and last month, a reviewer on an Australian newspaper tipped it to win the Man Booker Prize.

Four years after his 13 stranded travellers traded their quirky yarns around the baggage reclaim belt, Dasgupta has opted for a more concrete setting. Solo is almost entirely located in Bulgaria.

But why?

'I became fascinated by Bulgaria for a whole number of reasons,' he says. 'It's been a kind of laboratory for many disastrous experiments - monarchies, fascism, communism - and most ended disastrously, particularly in the 20th century, which actually started well for the country with independence in 1908.

'I visited in the mid-1990s when it was experiencing terrible problems economically. And now it has problems with the casino capitalism culture that has emerged in the wake of communism. In a way Bulgaria shows off much of the best and worst of a continent's experience of the 20th century.'

Where Tokyo Cancelled is fixed in the 21st century, Solo explores both the 20th century and projects into this century, through the reflections of Ulrich, approaching his 100th birthday. Ulrich leads us through the assorted calamities of Bulgaria's turbulent century and his own ups and downs. And that's just the first half of Solo.

The second half provides Ulrich's prophecy for the future, but in a way that dreamily takes a while to reveal what the writer is playing at. It is a clever, original novel.

Unlike the Ulrich story, Dasgupta's life has largely been spared the excesses of historical tumult. He came into this world in leafy Canterbury, in southern England, in the month that the People's Republic of China took Taiwan's seat on the UN Security Council, November 1971, and grew up in another famously lovely part of Britain - Cambridge - until he wound up as an undergraduate at Balliol College, Oxford.

His studies then took him to the Conservatoire Darius Milhaud in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After a series of academic and corporate jobs, Dasgupta devoted himself to his true vocation.

He's now a family man and today New Delhi is his home - and so back to Solo. One wonders how he managed to penetrate the head of a 100-year-old man in Sofia.

'It was a challenge, and I really struggled at times,' he says. 'In Tokyo Cancelled I had to stretch myself in terms of space but not time, so it was something I had to get used to. Plus, this character does very little, and that made the challenge even greater.'

Asked if he feels part of an Anglo-Indian literary heritage, Dasgupta sounds like he's heard this one before.

'I get annoyed by labels, they seem rather reductive. I don't think it's fair that the things I write should be taken as representative of my category. Actually my main experience is of 'non-belonging'. I've been here in New Delhi for eight years and I still feel like a foreigner. And when I'm back in Britain I don't feel like I fit in there either.'

He is more relaxed talking about influences. 'I don't actually read much modern fiction,' he says. 'I do read a lot of old history books and classical fiction, but not so much contemporary work. I'm probably more influenced by film than books. Film is more receptive to the modes of the contemporary. And it can provide a more rapid response to our changing world. So my prose style probably has some kind of cinematic quality.'

Dasgupta has two engagements today at the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival.

'I like Asian festivals,' he says. 'Most take place in Europe, which is where most of the big publishers are based, but the Asian festivals are special.

'Hong Kong is prescient of tomorrow's Delhi, in that it provides a physical model of how New Delhi imagines its future. As [the city's] population heads towards the 20 million mark it is going to be needing Hong Kong-style high-rises to meet housing requirements.'

New Delhi has grown close to his heart, and is the subject of his next book, a non-fiction examination of the city that is now a home of sorts for the 'non-belonging' writer.

'It's a kind of 'Naipaulean' study of contemporary New Delhi and how it is coping with upheaval,' Dasgupta says, referring to another perennial non-belonger.

'There's upheaval everywhere - in architecture, culture, technology, people's lives. It's a city in the midst of extraordinary change.' See