Published by Fourth Estate, 2009.
Ulrich has sometimes wondered whether his life has been a failure. Once he would have looked at all this and said, Yes. But now he does not know what it means for a life to succeed or fail. How can a dog fail its life, or a tree? A life is just a quantity; and he can no more see failure in it than he can see failure in a pile of earth, or a bucket of water. Failure and success are foreign terms to such blind matter.
Ulrich is a blind one-hundred-year-old, living in a dingy apartment in Bulgaria. As he sits and listens, he dreams of his life, and he dreams of possible lives. Starting from his childhood, we are led by this one man through a century and a country that have undergone startling changes and startling failures. We are also led through his dream world, where lost realities bear fruit in his dream children – adults in the twenty-first century world who could have been his children.
Rana Dasgupta has chosen an original format of two parts for his novel, starting with a kind of biography for Ulrich: sitting in his apartment with flashbacks to a disappearing past. Then, suddenly, the focus changes, and we spend the second half of the novel inside Ulrich’s mind as he imagines imperfect but exciting people who could have been his children, and the stories of how they come to meet in New York, the place to which he was unable to follow his own, real son.
The first half of the book is an overview of the twentieth century in the Balkans. Sometimes lingering over memories, sometimes rushing, we move with Ulrich through his early childhood in a time of hope and possibility, then the First World War, anti-Communist repression, the Second World War and the alliance with Germany and then with the Allies, life in a Communist republic, and the return to a depressing form of capitalism. It is like reading of one failure after another, of change for the sake of change, and the absurdity of progress – but mostly it is about one man who was not especially good or bad or gifted or triumphant who lived through it all and is now considering his life. “Thinking back, he realises how much has slipped through the fingers of his memory. Everything he still retains could be told in an afternoon, and yet there is so much more. The substance of all those days, which has entirely escaped.”
Ulrich is a shadowy character at times. We dwell so much in his own head, and interesting questions arise around the idea of the subjective narrator. It was surprising to this reader to learn, about a hundred pages in, that other people make fun of him, seeing him as an eccentric. Likewise, from the beginning we are encouraged to see Ulrich’s thwarted skill for music and science as very great, as Ulrich himself sees them, until at the very end he admits in a dreamed meeting with his first love that he “was never very good at chemistry”, after all.
Ulrich’s dreams are set onto paper in the second half, cutting suddenly into the chronological narrative. It is a disjointed kind of structure, and at first I was disappointed to leave the absorbing account of Ulrich’s life. Likewise, Ulrich’s dreams at first seem very unconnected, though they are engrossing stories in themselves.
However, as the second half progressed, I found myself just as much drawn into the writing as in the first half. Living in Ulrich’s imagination is just as interesting as living in his memories. The stories within this section, of “his” children and their origins, have the feeling of a fairy tale – gypsies, gangsters, romance, tragedy, revenge, flawed beauty, unearthly music. His characters are compelling, more three-dimensional than the real people he remembers in his own life. The dreams and the children are woven together just as the two halves of the book are gradually woven together, leading up to the conclusion Ulrich finds between them. “Life happens in a certain place for a certain time. But there is a great surplus left over, and where will we stow it but in our dreams?”
In the book as a whole, my overwhelming impression was of Rana Dasgupta’s skill as a writer. His turn of phrase is sometimes unconventional, yet it never jars. It is beautiful and well organised language that engrosses, and doesn’t overwhelm, the reader. There are moments that are delightfully satirical, although these are few and far between, and others that are heart-wrenching; the arrest of Ulrich’s mother by the secret police is one that stands out, as is the failure of his marriage and the loss of his small son to emigration.
A pleasure to review, even more a pleasure to read, this book should be receiving a lot of attention very soon.
Alison Stedman is a fiction editor at Halfway Down the Stairs.
© 2009, Alison Stedman