Initially, it was the synoptic descriptions of Solo that drew me in. I saw phrases like “enigmatic,” “thought-provoking,” and “demanding,” along with geographical settings such as Berlin, Bulgaria, and New York City. The cover artwork interested me as well. It depicts the white silhouette of a man against a seafoam blue background; he has a cane and his upper body is dissolving into birds. I hadn't read much fiction in recent months, so I was eager to jump back into the storytelling pool with this book.
Solo begins sadly and remains sad throughout. Ulrich, an old Bulgarian man nearing his 100th birthday, is completely blind and relies on the charity of his neighbors to exist. He has nothing to do except relive his life, one memory at a time. Ulrich was born and raised alongside the timeline of the twentieth century and each of his dreams has been thwarted by the major events of the times. Even after managing to leave Bulgaria to study chemistry in Berlin, he is called back to his home country to face its ruin at the hands of Russian Communists. Ulrich never leaves the country again.
The second half of the novel concentrates on Ulrich's “dream children,” Bulgarian siblings Khatuna, Irakli, and Boris, an orphan and violin prodigy. Each has a sad beginning in their native Bulgaria and they find their respective ways to the United States (echoing Ulrich's own frustrated attempts to leave Bulgaria). In America, their lives entangle messily. Which of them will find happiness? Khatuna, Irakli, and Boris are Ulrich's dream of the twenty-first century, where there is no need for any of the old failures of twentieth century Bulgarian life.
In an interview, author Rana Dasgupta (a British-Indian who has lived largely in the U.S. and India) referred to the “self-absorbed” nature of America and India, countries he believes behave as if they’re “the only countries in the world.” This is why the author chose Bulgaria, a small and “uninteresting” country, as the setting of his second novel. Small it may be, but the milieu is anything but uninteresting. The characters, down to those who make the briefest of appearances, are fully realized. More than once I became tearful at the transpiring events. The prose is fine, strong, and pretty. I enjoyed Solo very much and recommend it to any fan of literary fiction, history, or armchair travel.