Rana Dasgupta is a British Indian novelist and essayist. He grew up in Cambridge, England, and studied at Balliol College, Oxford, the Conservatoire Darius Milhaud in Aix-en-Provence, and, as a Fulbright Scholar, the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He has lived in Delhi, India, since 2001. In 2010 The Daily Telegraph called him one of Britain’s best novelists under 40. In 2014 Le Monde named him one of 70 people who are making the world of tomorrow. He was awarded the prestigious Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the novel Solo; it won both the region and overall best-book prize.
Alephi : When were you first drawn to the idea of writing a novel set in Bulgaria?
Rana Dasgupta : I think I’d been thinking about it since about 1997. That was when the financial meltdown was going on in Bulgaria, which was when I first began to follow Bulgarian news. Of course that was already five years after I had bought that famous CD of Bulgarian music, Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, which was probably my first encounter with the place. Suffice to say that when I took a trip there in 2003 to get some initial impressions for the book I would write after Tokyo Cancelled, I had already been thinking about it for some time.
Alephi : In Ulrich, you have created a character who witnesses an entire century of ideological transitions – fascism to communism, and finally free-market capitalism. Ulrich is a man who has failed. Through Ulrich, do you see a link between individual failure and the failure of the grand narratives of history, of ideology itself in the 20th century?
Rana Dasgupta : Of course this is one of the themes, yes. Seen, crucially, from a provincial perspective. Unlike Man With No Qualities, this book does not begin in Vienna (or Paris or London) but in a peripheral place where these “grand narratives” arrive more garbled, senseless and sometimes violent.
Alephi : Solo is divided into two parts – ‘Life’ and ‘Daydreams’. Is it because realism does not interest you as a novelist, or do you believe that in the postmodern world, conventional realism as a form cannot adequately express the absurdities of our age?
Rana Dasgupta : I think Solo is a very “realist” book. What is unlikely about daydreams?
Alephi : In Tokyo Cancelled, you looked at modern existence in a globalised world. In Solo, places once again come across not as fixities or insulated entities but as constantly being shaped by what’s happening elsewhere. Are you, in fact, suggesting that the global is local as never before in human history?
Rana Dasgupta : No. But I suppose I am bored by consensus about borders. Bulgaria is for me something like what Trieste is for Claudio Magris. It is Asia and Europe, it is Islam and Christianity, it is Turkey and “the Balkans”. And yes: once again, it’s a book about a small country, where sometimes the idea of “democracy” or “self-determination” is a farce: bigger countries decide what will happen to you, and it happens. This is a situation I find immensely absorbing, for reasons I can’t totally articulate.
Alephi : The influence of medieval folktales came across very strongly in your previous work. In Solo, we again see a curious, quotidian employment of the ‘magical’ in your fiction. Is the use of daydreams, for example, a deliberate approach to critique the rational fundamentalism of urban, industrial modernity?
Rana Dasgupta : There was a lot of magic in Tokyo Cancelled, but I don’t see where it lies in Solo. Clearly there is an fondness in Solo for the stuff of the imagination, the inner life, but I don’t like the idea that this makes the book somehow about magic. The inner life is just the inner life, and it operates according to its own rules. To some extent those rules, whatever they are, are the theme of Solo.
Alephi : Some of my favourite parts in Solo were descriptions of Bulgarian life under communism. What kind of research did you undertake in order to portray the complex and layered nature of existence under a severely authoritarian State? How difficult was it to recreate that world, and how would you link it to problems of representation and the temptation to view events with the retrospective advantage of history?
Rana Dasgupta : Some reading (eg Tzvetan Todorov’s Voices from the Gulag, a fascinating book even if you’re not planning to write a novel about Bulgaria) but mostly conversations and interviews. There’s not a lot written about Bulgaria, and anyway I wanted to hear real stories from people. That’s part of why the novel took four years – there were gaps in my own knowledge and ability to imagine, and I had to wait a long time, sometimes, before I met someone who could help me fill them.
Alephi : In the first part, the novel is primarily concerned with Bulgaria. Yet in the second part concerned with Ulrich’s daydreams, your focus shifts to Georgia. Of course, this is connected with Ulrich’s life – Georgia being the last country he visited, and America being the place he desperately wanted to arrive in. Yet, what narrative possibilities did you want to explore through this shift?
Rana Dasgupta : In Book 1, Ulrich is a Bulgarian man who marries a Georgian woman. In Book 2, we encounter a young man from Bulgaria and a young woman from Georgia, both of whom end up together in New York. The symmetry is clear, isn’t it?
Alephi : Talk us through the intriguing characters of Irakli and Khatuna. What effect in the narration of the tale did you want to achieve through these two characters?
Rana Dasgupta : Ulrich is daydreaming about his own “strange progeny” – about the unrealised aspects of his own personality, and about emerging personalities he senses around him in the last days of his life. Boris, Irakli and Khatuna are all parts of this. Genius, suicide and revenge are all unrealised aspects of his own self. Khatuna is a hyper capitalist personality he senses particularly strongly as he absorbs information about the early 21st century. She’s someone I think we can recognise around us in India too.
Alephi : There are lots of references to music in the novel. I read in one of your interviews that you once wanted to become a musician. Solo charts the banishment of indigenous forms of music under communism. Yet its revival, through the stardom of Boris, is only as a consumable object in a capitalist economy. Was the idea to critique the ways in which music’s status as a shared cultural entity is constantly under threat?
Rana Dasgupta : To make somewhat ironic, I guess, the language of contemporary capitalist culture. Plastic Munari, the music producer, has no idea what depths lie behind the music he trades in. Plastic is, to some extent, the capitalist Everyman – that is to say, he speaks as “we” speak, with a capitalist swagger that is, in a grander sense, entirely unwarranted.
Alephi : You have lived in Delhi for almost a decade now. In what ways do you think it has influenced your writing?
Rana Dasgupta : I have wonderful, brilliant, challenging friends here, who never let me get away with bullshit. In Delhi, I am also an émigré, a status which always brings with it certain hypersensitivities that are useful to a writer.
Alephi : Both Tokyo Cancelled and Solo traverse the globe in different ways. Do you think that the novel can no longer exist as a provincial form?
Rana Dasgupta : It can and does. I just find such novels boring. Boring and also untrue to contemporary experience. I think to some extent contemporary society looks to the novel to store its most nostalgic and anachronistic impulses, which is why so many of them happen in such small spaces, and with such quaint emotions. But I don’t find such things interesting.
Alephi : What are you working on now? Tell us about your next project.
Rana Dasgupta : No!
Alephi : Finally, a word about Slumdog Millionaire. I remember an essay in which you wrote about Western culture’s increasing fascination with the third world city. Do you think with Slumdog’s astounding success, this fascination has now moved from the periphery to the centre?
Rana Dasgupta : Yes. With White Tiger and Slumdog we have two stories about Indian non-elites that are given global cultural accolades. I don’t think that anyone would say that either of these stories is a masterpiece. But there is a kind of projection going on, in which, at this moment in global society, India’s dispossessed, with all their suffering and ingenuity, supply a certain kind of emotional plenitude, and thus the promise of great culture. It’s mysterious. I tried in that essay to say something about why such things might be happening, but it’s still a bit mysterious to me.
This interview is taken via email by Alephi editor.