This post will be the first in a series of posts reviewing books that take place, at least partially, in Bulgaria. I’ll be spending a few weeks in April visiting some friends in Bulgaria and thought reading a few books that take place in the country or are written by Bulgarian authors would be a great way to learn a few things about a place I know next to nothing about. The one I’ve started with, Solo by Rana Dasgupta, was not only an amazing introduction to the history and culture of Bulgaria, but was an outstanding book in general.
Solo operates under a premise similar to An Unnecessary Woman; the protagonist, an old man, alone and with nothing to show for his long life, looks back on the different phases of his life. But that is where the similarities end. Solo is broken up into 2 parts, which can almost be seen as two separate books, but are tied together in a way that make both parts more meaningful and complete than if either stood alone. Part 1 is the story of the protagonist’s life, from child to old man. He’s born near the beginning of the 20th century, and through his perspective, the reader sees how Bulgaria changes and evolves with new technologies, through world wars, and the rise and fall of communism. One of my favorite quotes from Solo regarding the history of Bulgaria is the following:
“When Bulgaria became independent, we didn’t even know. It took weeks for the news to reach us that they had made a country for the Bulgarians and our village was not in it. We packed everything up, took all the pigs, crossed into Bulgaria and made a new village.”
Small moments like this that remind you how strange and arbitrary borders are, especially in Eastern Europe.
Part 1 of Solo was exactly the type of story I was looking for to give me some insight into Bulgarian history and culture. When Part 2 began, it took me a few chapters to get my bearings because it begins an entirely different story with brand new characters, but once I got into it, I was completely absorbed. I read it in one sitting. It was fast-paced and exciting and took the story into the 21st century and beyond Bulgaria’s borders. Without Part 2, Part 1 would have felt a little heavy and dark and pessimistic, and without Part 1, Part 2 would have felt a little meandering and directionless, but together, they balanced out perfectly. On top of this, the writing was excellent on every level. I was super impressed by this novel and will be making a point to read other works of Dasgupta’s. I can’t recommend Solo enough, especially if you have any interest in a part of the world you more than likely know very little about.