"Solo,"by Rana Dasgupta, was awarded the U.K. Commonwealth Prize. As almost every other reviewer has already told you, it falls into two parts - two movements, the author calls them, and considering the importance of music in the book, that's quite appropriate.
First Movement is "Life." It opens in Sofia, capital of Bulgaria, in the Balkans of Eastern Europe. And it introduces us to the exceptionally long-lived Ulrich, he's almost 100 years old and now blind, and he's the son of a successful railway engineer who admired the Germans. It opens early in the twentieth century, before World War I, which was begun in the Balkans. His father comes back from that war a cripple, and then we are in the expansive 1920s. Ulrich loves music, but his father won't tolerate that as a career choice: the boy's also interested in chemistry, and his father sends him to Berlin to study with the world's greatest chemists, such as Fritz Haber, while Albert Einstein, world's most famous mathematician, wanders the halls. But then comes the stock market crash of 1929; Ulrich's father's holdings evaporate, and the son is called back to Sofia to support his family. The Depression 30s are rather glum, as you might expect. Then comes World War II and occupation of the country by the Germans, also a rather glum period, as you might expect. The end of World War II brings the Russian invasion and occupation - this for many years. And the situation is even glummer, as you might expect. First thing to be said is, if Dasgupta didn't actually live in Bulgaria for a while, it must have required a considerable amount of research, and powers of imagination, to give us such a vivid take on the capital and the country, and I congratulate the author. However, the first movement might well be described as glum, over all.
Mind you, I know virtually nothing about Bulgaria, and can summarize what I do know. In the Balkans, invaded and occupied by Germans in World War II, invaded and occupied, long time, by Russians after the war. Didn't know the population, principal exports, raw materials and etc., and still don't. And then I can quote CASABLANCA, a movie I nearly know by heart. The pretty young woman, seeking help, tells Rick, the saloon owner (Humphrey Bogart) that she and her young husband Jan are from Bulgaria. Things are very bad there, she says, the devil has the people by the throat.
The second movement, "Daydreams," is far more problematic to me. It is evidently meant to be interpreted as Ulrich's daydreams, but it takes us to Georgia, of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and New York, of the good old USA, two places where the old man has never been. It introduces us to, possibly, Ulrich's fantasy children, born in communism, but now making their way in the post-communist world. These are characters we must assume don't exist who lead complicated existences. This movement has the blind old man driving around New York, where the roads are tough on seeing, experienced drivers. It is, I guess, post-modern, and that's the best I can do. Some of the other reviewers nearby are much better equipped to handle this material than am I, who reads largely mysteries, and nonfiction. I admire the author's audacity and imagination, but I found the book disjointed, confusing, and often overwritten.
Dasgupta was born in Canterbury, England. "Solo" follows on the heels of his first novel, the highly-praised Tokyo Cancelled
that was short listed for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. Perhaps he's an acquired taste.