Solo performance

22 April 2010
After his first novel Tokyo Cancelled, people started talking about Rana Dasgupta as one of the most promising british writers. It kindled our interest to find out that the action in his latest novel takes place in the meandering streets of Old Sofia and follows the hundred-years-long life of a Bulgarian outcast called Ulrich. We talked to Rana about globalization, Medieval literature and other stories days before his third visit in Sofia. This time his coming for a national tour presenting the Bulgarian release of Solo, including two special presentation in English both in Sofia and Varna.


These days people tend to blame everything on globalization. You, on the other part base your novels on a multicultural, globalised world and its people. Do you find
globalization inspiring?
Globalisation is not one process but many. It has many aspects and many effects and it is poitntlessly reductive to say it is good or bad. We can see many horrors in the processes of globalisation and yet we willingly participate in those processes because they are also exhilarating and full of possibility.
For myself as a writer I think my preoccupation is with the culture of globalisation. We understand globalisation as a set of economic and political integrations. We have very little philosophical or poetic infrastructure for globalisation - which is why the whole thing seems so alienating to so many people. We need to learn how to be citizens of this vast terrain of globalisation - just as once we had to learn how to be citizens of nation-states. This is not only so we can celebrate globalisation but also so we can criticise it meaningfully and, hopefully, manage it.

You are born in England, lived in the USA and currently reside in Delhi. Do you see yourself as a citizen of the world?
Despite having lived in a few countries I still feel I have seen very little of the world. At the same time, moving between places does give you a certain scepticism towards grand narratives. You realise that every place has its own grand narrative and in most respects it is entirely self-serving. Nation-states have become narcissitic entities and for most people there is a great temptation to participate in that narcissism. I see my work in some ways as an attempt to move beyond this position and - yes - to imagine what it would mean to think not on a national but on a planetary level.


Does living on different continents and inside different ethnic groups help you accumulate ideas for your novels?
Of course. Every time you live in a new place you are forced to re-examine your own history, your own self. This is a process that generates many new insights and situations.

Your first novel Tokyo Cancelled is said to have been influenced by the famous Canterbury Tales. How does medieval literature inspire a 21 century novel?
I was interested in returning to those medieval storytelling epics in order to see how they related to our 21st century world. All of us have a memory of storytelling, of folktales. But we also know that contemporary people do not tell stories in this way - they do not pass on their wisdom to each other in the form of stories. Why is this? Are modern people impoverished? Or are the needs that stories used to fulfil now fulfilled by other things? Tokyo Cancelled was a meditation on these questions - on the role of storytelling in the contemporary world. It proposed a collection of contemporary people - air travellers stuck in an airport - who were able to sit down and tell folktales just like their traditional forbears, but these folktales were about the world we live in - a world of corporations, technology, illegal immigrants, etc etc. The book asked the reader, implicitly, whether he or she believed that contemporary people could tell such tales, and if not, why not.

Your latest work – Solo has already been praised by both critics and writers, including Salman Rushdie. Didi you expect such a reaction?
My writing - especially the writing of Solo - is a very obscure and private journey. While I am writing I am in a kind of exile - I am living in a world that no one else knows anything about, and it is impossible to communicate about it. I never know how other people will respond to this world until they do so.

The main character in your latest novel Solo is a Bulgarian man. Nice choice. Any particular reason for it?
There are many reasons for it, of course. I had begun listening to some Bulgarian music which led me to read a book about Bulgarian history. This history began to fascinate me - it seemed to mirror precisely the feelings I wanted to explore in a novel. A history of turbulence and idealism without any direction, without any relationship to life - and the emotions that arise such a history. I became more and more drawn to Bulgaria: I took my first trip there in 2003, while I was writing Tokyo Cancelled, to see if it was a place I wanted to write about. There was something I really loved about it: a spirit, a way of talking, a bifurcated personality. I think I found Bulgaria to be more representative of the world than the places I had lived. I had lived in great power countries that talked about history as something that they had made. In Solo I was interested in looking at the experience of the outsider - or someone who lives in a world whose history is made by other people. Someone who is always conscious of drawing meaning from other people and places, not from himself. This is how most people in the world live. When I encountered Bulgaria I knew this is where I wanted to set this novel.

Ulrich is quite an unhappy man, a failure in more than one way. Why did you decide to create and develop such character?
In global media culture we see images of people who live lives of almost inconceivable plenitude. They have vast amounts of money, they are beautiful and they're surrounded by other beautiful people, they live in spectacular surroundings eat and drink the best things that the planet has to offer. We know that most people do not live like this - we know, in fact, that globalisation creates new proletariats wherever it spreads, and that most people in the world are forced to think primarily about survival. Failure and subsistence therefore seem to me to be more relevant themes than success and surplus. But the question does not end there, for we cannot simply accept that the majority of lives on the planet are failed. The question is: how do we think about failure - which is not failure at all - and how can we see all human life as positive and meaningful?

Is Solo a book about history, culture, cultural preservation, Bulgaria or failure? Or is it about all these things?
It's about all these things of course. And, I would add, the future. Because Ulrich's daydreams, which make up the second half of the book, are a kind of prophecy. And this shows another interest I have in Bulgaria - and indeed in many "emerging" places in the world. Places that did not participate in the main wealth of the twentieth century but which are now joining the global market. India is another of these places of course. These places are formidable in their ambition and determination, and their historical marginalisation will propel them into the centre of the twenty-first century. That's an important theme of the second half of Solo.

A good part of the action in Solo takes place in Sofia. Have you been to our capital before writing the novel?
Twice, yes. I came to Sofia on two protracted research trips. I wandered all around Sofia and I was beautifully hosted by various people, who told me fantastic stories of the city and their families. It was a very memorable experience - one of the great incidental rewards of being a novelits. I fell in love with this aspect of the country: its hospitality, its storytelling culture.

You would make a real Bulgarian tour presenting Solo. Do you expect a great deal of interest from the Bulgarian readers?
I don't know! There may be many people who think it is not interesting to read about their own history through the eyes of an outsider. There may even be those who think it is a kind of insult that somebody with no roots in Bulgaria writes a novel set there. I can understand such responses. I hope that people will see, however, that it was on my part a gesture of great love to immerse myself in Bulgarian history for four years of my life and that we live in an age where we have almost a responsibility to accept other people's histories as our own.

Rana Dasgupta`s Solo will be presented in English on the following dates:
Sofia, Onda Coffee Break (26-30 Bacho Kiro Str), 28 April, 18:30
Varna,
Shakespeare and Friends Bookstore (17 Dragoman Str), 3 May, 18:30

 

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