“I would be nothing without you”: Survival and Failure in Rana Dasgupta’s Solo and Miroslav Penkov’s East of the West

  • Abstract:

    For Margaret Atwood, survival is the central image of Canadian Literature and the victim its central character. According to Peter Carey, Australian literature is suspicious of success but embraces failure and loss as constitutive elements. Rana Dasgupta’s novel Solo, winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2010, and Miroslav Penkov’s story collection East of the West inscribe Bulgaria into a post-colonial context echoing Atwood and Carey, as they make failure and survival central concerns of their Bulgarian characters. I am going to explore how the two texts develop the notions of failure and survival not only to represent their Bulgarian protagonists or to come to terms with Bulgaria’s past, but also to unfold the buoyant energy and creativity of their characters. I shall argue that, although the narratives address key themes of post-colonial literature or literature of migration, such as home, displacement, memory or return, their characters share some peculiarities that add new turns to these issues. Penkov’s stories and Dasgupta’s novel take a critical stance towards identification via ethnicity, nation or gender; nevertheless they do not resolve essentialist assumptions with transcultural identities or nomadism. Instead, Solo and East of the West celebrate the human individual and his or her potential for survival. Accentuating the choices the characters make and whose consequences they bear despite their failures, the narratives are profoundly ethical. With this strong emphasis on ethical individualism, the two texts confront stereotypical representations which define Eastern Europe through its Communist past, where the collective was favoured over the individual, as well as an equally stereotypical notion of the chaotically diverse Balkans. Moreover, they represent ambiguous positions towards history and memory with homesick characters emphasising their blood bonds while insisting on breaking with their past (Penkov) or by juxtaposing the memory of a human being and its country with daydreams that only give a dim hint at ‘what furies and passions […] and raw human energies are emerging out of the ruins of the collapsed Soviet Empire’ (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2009/sep/07/not-booker-solo-rana-dasgupta  <2 March 2012>) (Dasgupta).