Solo is a fantastically thought-provoking book, told through the ruminative voice of a blind man deprived of a lifetime of agency, one who could not follow through with his own individual passions, and who has replayed his own questionable memories over and over until in the end he can only succumb to the fantasy world of his mind to derive some form of contentment from a life hardly lived.
A key question that I feel Dasgupta keeps returning to is the question of what does it mean to remain noble, that is to say, to retain one’s humanity and identity in the face of overwhelming social change and upheavals, and to assert one’s agency under the boot of greater political and socioeconomic forces at work. After all, Ulrich’s name means “nobility”, and one would be remiss to overlook such a central fact. Nobility, at first glance, can be taken to mean the noble pursuit of music or chemistry, as Ulrich attempts early in his life, or his father’s belief in the noble cause of progress. Nobility can also be taken to mean the noble sacrifice of such personal pursuits for the sake of family, as Ulrich is compelled to do when he leaves Berlin, or willingly forsake his dignity to secure his mother’s release. Nobility can mean simply possessing of good intentions or confidence in one’s righteous purpose, as are displayed by various characters throughout Solo, but which ultimately lead to harm and unintended negative consequences.
What I like most about Ulrich is that he is in fact not a man of grand action or passionate ideals, as is the case of most other protagonists, or other characters in this story, for that matter. He has – maintained to the best of his ability – his integrity, but not the resolute stubbornness that got his friend Boris killed, nor the wild fervor that got his mother detained. It is an integrity born of a desire to do right by other people, but to not overreach unless pressed. In the text itself, there is a scene where his mother says that “only the ignorant still know how to be human and decent” (104). To me, this is a fascinating claim to make, and suggests that it is only those whose mind are devoid of ideological agenda and worldly knowledge that have yet to be corrupted and hence, maintain their nobility as human beings. The noblest of people are the ones who don’t attempt to affect change or action, and on a macroscopic level, it became clear to me that the takeaway message of Solo was that innocent people will always bear the cost of societal experimentation, and that every time anyone tries to impose a change of lifestyle or beliefs on behalf of others, tragedy will inevitably occur.
Above all, Solo to me is a discussion of what it means for a human to be caught in the wheel of the national machine, and how people cope with the inevitable loss of personal purpose that follows. It is in that sense, the microscopic IR analysis, of how national policies and political sentiment sweep up those on the ground. It focuses not on those who are – as generally emphasized by mainstream historical literature – important figures at the center of change, but rather those who are the everyday civilians in the periphery caught by the ripples of such action. Solo is a ruminative commentary on the tumultuous social history of Bulgaria as it evolves through various political regimes, but also a commentary on what it means remain noble in character, when you must detach aspects of yourself for the sake of survival.
With this in mind, some key intertexts that I would suggest include Forrest Gump by Winston Groom and To Live by Yu Hua, both of which have film adaptations that I would highly recommend. The common thread is that these all focus on an assuming everyman who experience the various stages of their countries colored history, for better or worse (mostly for worse), and how they react to the dual challenges of both their personal sense of individualism and of more practical matters of survival. In Forrest Gump, the titular character similarly finds himself in situations reflective of the current socio-political atmosphere of the time, from serving in the Vietnam War to participating in Ping Pong Diplomacy, though expressed in a more comedic manner. To Live falls on the opposite end of the tonal spectrum, and is by contrast a morbidly depressing tale of a wealthy gambler who gradually loses his former life and every family member to a different moment in Chinese history, from the Chinese Civil War to the Cultural Revolution. In both these stories and Solo, there is a somewhat Absurdist message being conveyed in how very little the protagonist does to affect the world they live in in any meaningful way that I feel is reflective of how powerless the individual is in the face of overwhelming national spirit.
I feel such comparisons will provide an interesting paralleling contrast of how ones social, political and economic life is impacted in response to different types of key national developments, events and regime changes. It is true that Bulgaria, the United States, and China have such dramatically different histories, and one can argue that Forrest Gump experiences much less social upheaval compared to the other two. Nonetheless, it would be interesting to spot the similarities in how the most humble and unassuming of men adapt and navigate their way through the rise and fall of different forms of societies, and survive through times of division and unity as their countries arguably come to maturity in the modern era.
Nations ostensibly maintain their collective representation through a shared sense of national identity, but what Solo paints is a portrait of a nation’s interest overriding one’s personal identity, and the result of such deconstruction upon the everyday, otherwise-faceless middle-class citizen. Dasgupta’s novel is valuable in making us recognize the microscopic impact of macroscopic policymaking, and brings into focus the elusive question of how one understands one’s noble human existence and identity as part of a greater, powerful whole.