“I had arrived full of the kind of optimism that, in retrospect, I recognise as a sure sign that things would go wrong, and badly. Not for me, for I was a passer-by; or, more exactly, a passer-through. Things happened around me, over me, even across me, but never to me. Even when I was there, in the thick of it, during those last hundred days.”
It’s difficult for me to wrap my mind around the fact that The Last Hundred Days is the first novel from British author Patrick McGuinness. Ok, so he’s previously published some non-fiction and poetry books, and this plugs into one of my favourite pet theories: when poets write, expect something extraordinary, and for this reader, The Last Hundred Days easily glides on to the Best of 2012 List. A stunningly well-written book focusing on an ugly subject, and no doubt the most underlined book I’ve read this year, The Last Hundred Days examines the nature of corruption and the power politics during the final months leading up to the overthrow of the despotic Ceausescu regime in December 1989.
The narrator of the novel is a young man in his twenties who leaves for a university position in Bucharest after the death of his father. There’s something decidedly fishy about the appointment as he didn’t even bother to show up for the interview. Naturally he didn’t expect to get the job, and so when a visa arrived, he packed a suitcase and asked no questions. Upon arriving in Bucharest,”the Paris of the East,” the narrator gets a taste of what’s to come when customs officers “who operate with malign lethargy,” lift chocolate bars and batteries from his luggage with the dead-pan comment, “tax.”
For those of us who know a little about recent Romanian history, we know that the narrator has arrived to live, by choice, in a totalitarian country–Romania in the 80s ‘run’ by the Ceausescus–Nicolae and Elena. Immediately after alighting from the plane, the narrator notes the sensation that he’s entered a time warp. The posters glorifying Ceausescu show him decades younger than he actually is and yet he appears to have “lightly bloated marzipan blush of an embalmed corpse.”
The narrator is given an apartment recently occupied by his mysterious and missing predecessor, Belanger–a man who left, apparently, in some haste as his clothing, CDs and books remain behind. Leo, a fellow professor, becomes our narrator’s guide to Bucharest and Romania. A master figure in the lucrative black market economy, Leo has a vast network of acquaintances who specialise in acquiring and selling all the goods that seem to have disappeared from Romanian life. Leo’s first gift to the narrator is a Bachelor of Arts certificate, a “welcome present” which comes along with the cryptic comment, “mind you, if you want a PhD you’ll have to pay for it like everyone else.”
Welcome to Bucharest.
Although this is ostensibly a communist country, Romania has succumbed to Totalitarianism, and along with that comes the Police State and its savage treatment of anyone with the bad luck to fall foul of the system. This is a country in which people disappear, the great majority of the population don’t have a connection to the corrupt network of party politics with its accompanying black market, birth control is illegal and any miscarriage is investigated as a criminal act.
While Leo, who has his black market goods stashed all over Bucharest, does business with the British ex-pats and embassy minions in Bucharest, he largely makes fun of their society:
It’s a close call for Leo’s special scorn, between the Party apparatchiks who rule their people with such corruption, ineptitude and contempt, and the expats: the diplomats, businessmen and contractors who live in a compound to the west of the city, with their English pub, The Ship and Castle (‘The Shit and Hassle’) and their embassy shop. One of his riffs is to compose designer scents for them: ‘Essence of Broadstairs’, ‘Bromley Man’, ‘Stevenage: For Her’. Their parties, and endless round of cocktails and booze-ups are ‘sometimes fun, of only for a drink and a chance to read last week’s English papers’, but the circuit as a whole is, as he puts it ‘a doppelganbang: where largely identical people fuck each other interchangeably’.
Gradually, through his relationships, the narrator is drawn into both the highs and lows of Romanian life. Through his relationship with the pampered daughter of a high-ranking Party official, he sees how the fortunate, the throughly corrupt live, but in his relationships with those who desire change, the narrator enters the dangerous and treacherous twilight area of black marketeers and dissidents.
For all the grotesqueness and brutality, it was normality that defined our relations; the human capacity to accommodate ourselves to our conditions, not the duplicity and corruption that underpinned them. This was also our greatest drawback- the routinisation of want, sorrow, repression, until they became invisible, until they numbed you even to atrocity.
Author McGuinness, who lived in Bucharest during the period described in the novel, is particularly adept at juxtaposing the two worlds of Romania–the world of repression and want vs. the world of lavish excess enjoyed by Party apparatchiks, the double-speak of totalitarianism and the seemingly natural duality that exists in everyone. Leo for example, may be a professor at the university, but he’s also a zealous, energetic black-marketeer. His sideline, if you will, is the documentation, in book form of the rapidly disappearing areas of Bucharest–a sideline that will culminate, with any luck, in the conclusion of his book The City of Lost Walks. So Leo is one of the movers and shakers of both the demolishing of Romanian society and its preservation–even if it’s only in book form. And what of our young narrator–a man whose moral corruption begins on day one of the job when he’s ‘encouraged’ to provide a reference for a student he’s never met. But in spite of this morally compromising act which signals that he’s willing to begin playing the corruption game, our narrator is far more attractive to the dissidents among the population than the power-brokers who can smooth his way. The nature of a police state encourages subversion even as it represses it, and everyone the narrator meets is not quite what they seem. What of former politician Trofim now out of favour as he writes two sets of memoirs (back to that double-speak again). Is he a voice for reform, or is it as Leo jokes: “New brothel, same old whores….”
Leo argues that “people and what they did were two separate things, they and their actions parting like a body and its shadow at dusk,” and in Romanian society corruption and repression is a part of daily life. There’s a Kafkaesque sense to some of the events that take place–the waiter who asks how the diners enjoyed the meal, for example, with the food yet to appear on the table. The waiter’s comment is deliberately mis-timed is a signal for bribery to begin. But this sense of madness and an almost secret, unspoken language that is only understood by natives extends beyond a simple exchange between two people and has escalated to national insanity:
If foreign dignitaries were being shown Bucharest, police vans unloaded goods and stacked them in shop windows: bread and vegetables, cuts of meat and fruit most people had forgotten existed. The cars slowed down to take it all in. When they had passed the same vans took everything back again to the diplomatic and party shops.
From the outside, the ministry was boxy and grey, its only ornament a stucco Party crest. As an interior space, it was barely comprehensible. I remembered those posters by Escher that decorated student walls: physically impossible architecture and abysmal interiors; staircases that tapered into a void, or twisted back into themselves; doors that opened onto doors; balconies that overlooked the inside of another room that gave onto a balcony that overlooked the inside of another room… There were vast desks with nothing on them except for telephones, ashtrays and blank paper; voices loud enough to startle but too faint to understand; unattributable footsteps that got closer but never materialised into presence, then sudden arrivals which made no sound. The rustle of unseen activity was everywhere,. like the scratching of insects in darkness. Kafka’s The Castle came to mind, a book I had not read but that fell into that category of literature that culture reads on your behalf and deposits somewhere inside you. So I imagined Kafka’s castle.
The Last Hundred Days is a dense read–not to be skimmed, and I found myself backtracking numerous times just to drink in the descriptions. While the professional reviews seem positive, reviews elsewhere appear to be mixed. Sometimes I think books get the wrong readers, but for me, this superb book, exquisitely written and told through the eyes by a slightly stunned narrator who lands in Romania as a witness of a dramatic time in the country’s history, the book will resonate for a long time to come.
Review copy from the publisher.