Interview with Rana Dasgupta

Aprile 28, 2011 in Libri da Stefano Mola

Recently, we have reviewed Solo, Rana Dasgupta’s second novel, a book that offers us a tale of the 20th and 21st centuries from the perspective of a one hundred-year old Bulgarian man. For this novel, Rana Dasgupta was awarded the prestigious Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. He has kindly accepted to answer some questions about the book.

Rana Dasgupta 2The novel is mainly set in Eastern Europe, and deals with the failure of communist countries. Is choice mainly linked with Bulgaria being the country where the first part of the novel takes place, or should we see in it something more? Could the novel have been in set in Western Europe?

“Solo” narrates a history of the twentieth century from Europe’s margins and therefore could not have been set in Western Europe. It reminds us that there are other histories of Europe and the world. The turbulence of the history of Western Europe – especially, of course, in my own country of England – was mitigated by a sense of purpose and achievement. “Solo” talks about a place where such turbulence happened without such a sense of ultimate purpose. Where every major political idea of the twentieth century was tried but where reality became less, rather than more, as a result. In this sense “Solo” presents an absurd twentieth century. Its universalism would lie in the speculation that most people in the twentieth century lived in a reality like Bulgaria’s rather than in one like England’s. Where “history” was produced elsewhere and all “we” could produce was replicas, imposters and ghosts.

The figure of Ulrich’s father is a sort of symbol of positivism, of the hope in future made better by science and technology. At the same time, we discover that he has abandoned his artistic side. The crisis of the modern world can come from this divorce between art and science?

Perhaps not this, precisely; instead – and more abstractly – from the disavowal of sacrifice. In order to move forward, to “become”, certain things must be left behind or sacrificed. This is part of the history of the world and also of the life of every individual. Sometimes that sacrifice, so “logical” in the context of “progress” can return later as a pathology – when one realises that the thing one threw away was, contrary to all appearances, essential.

The novel can also be viewed as a history of personal failure. Ulrich is talented, but he does not believe in himself. Do you think that it is more difficult to be self confident for talented people?

No. Ulrich’s lack of self-confidence derives more from the fragility of his position in the billowing twentieth century – which he wants so much to be a part of – than from his talent. It can seem difficult to believe, in a place like Western Europe, that talent will not bear fruit. Living in a place like India, where it is not so rare to meet talented people who have led mediocre lives, who have grown old with almost nothing to show for their talent, such stories do not seem remote. (How talented Ulrich actually is is of course a question that the reader must think about for himself.)

To me, Solo leaves us almost without hope. Just music and imagination may offer a way out, but what we call the real life seems a history of violence. Do you agree?

If one steps outside the secluded idylls of contemporary capitalism then the full violence of its forces becomes apparent. History appears as a tragic force. Hope derives from the fact that life and inner experience are not identical to history. They have a great independence from it. This is not only escape: it is a reality of its own which in turn has effects upon history.

di Stefano Mola