Tag Archives: political corruption

The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness

“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.

And again:

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.

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Bloodland by Alan Glynn

“Someone else’s perception of the truth–however outlandish or irrational–is a valid starting point for any investigation.” 

After seeing the film Limitless, based on the pharmaceutical thriller The Dark Fields by author Alan Glynn, I knew I wanted to read his latest book, Bloodland. Bloodland is a thriller and it starts off very strongly with a couple of employees of Gideon Global, a private security firm, accompanying the “package,” Senator John Rundle, a politician who is also a strong contender for the next presidential race. They’re in the Congo about to meet with Colonel Kimbela, the sadistic maniac who has a weakness for fake Louis Quinze style furniture and also controls mining rights for the region. It’s a tense situation, and the pampered Washington politician isn’t used to dealing directly with psychotic leaders. The convoy, gets stuck in a village. Here’s former Iraq vet, now Gideon employee Ray Kroner:

They’re both former servicemen, he and this other guy, and are virtual clones to look at–the buzz cuts, the pumped-up muscles, the armored vests, the mirrored shades–but Ray Kroner is prepared to lay even money that whereas he is ramped up to the max, his dial straining at eleven, Tom Szymanski here is barely a notch or two above clinically dead.

Ok, Ray has got 600 milligrams of Provigil in his system, but that’s not what this is. Big in the military, and even bigger now in the PMCs, Provigil will keep you awake for days on end, but it’s not speed, it’s not even coffee, it’s just an off switch right next to the sleep option in your brain–press it and one thing you won’t have to worry about anymore is getting tired.

The novel introduces a lot of characters in the first few chapters, and since we don’t yet know the significance of who’s who, it’s not easy to keep them all straight. That’s about the only complaint I have about this fast-paced tale that should definitely be made into a film. While Glynn introduces all his characters and sub plots early, a main thread soon develops, and that thread concerns unemployed Irish journalist, Jimmy Gilroy who’s working, desperately on a bio of dead actress, Susie Monaghan, one of those celebrity walking disasters who created news wherever she went and who was killed in a helicopter crash after leaving Drumcoolie Castle. Gilroy, who’s living on the book advance, is warned off the book by his father’s former business partner, Phil Sweeney:

PR guru, media advisor, strategist, fixer, bagman, God knows what else? Someone for whom talking to people was–and presumably still is–nothing less than the primary operating system of the universe?

Jimmy wonders why Sweeney would want to squash a celebrity bio of Susie a “tabloid celebrity, a bottom-feeding soap-star socialite.” But then again, Susie send a series of cryptic text messages right before she died….

It’s so obvious now that Phil Sweeney is covering for someone, a friend or a client, some balding, paunchy fuck who was maybe having an affair with Susie at the time and doesn’t want the whole thing dredged up again now, doesn’t want his name associated with her, doesn’t want his reputation or his marriage put in jeopardy.

Jimmy lifts his glass.

Could it really be as banal as that, and as predictable? Unprepossessing rich bloke, gorgeous girl on a fast-ticking career clock? Then this grubby, undignified attempt a few years later to pretend it never happened?

Jimmy can’t see what connection exists between Sweeney and Susie as they seem to live in different worlds. There is, of course, a connection, and it’s a global one that stretches from the compound of a psychopathic Congo dictator to the highest reaches of corporate America and those oh-so invisible, grubby strings that operate the marionettes in Washington. Once Glynn sets down all the initial threads of this tale, then the book becomes a page-turner, and Jimmy finds out the hard way that conspiracy theories often pack a punch. What’s particularly enjoyable about the book is the way Glynn shows a definite hierarchy of corruption and how various characters are committed to a cover-up no matter what it takes while others jump ship when the moral consequences are more than they can live with.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher via netgalley. Read on the kindle.

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Filed under Fiction, Glynn Alan

Fever Dream by Dennis Palumbo

I’d read some good reviews of Dennis Palumbo’s first book Mirror Image, so I decided to give this author’s second novel a try. After all, Fever Dream features Daniel Rinaldi, clinical psychologist and “trauma expert” who acts as a consultant for the Pittsburgh police, and I have a weakness for books that feature therapists. Dennis Palumbo who is a psychotherapist was formerly a Hollywood screenwriter, and all of that experience is apparent in this action-packed tale that seems to be firmly rooted in the thriller genre and screams for a film adaptation.

Rinaldi, now a widower due to the actions of a coked-up mugger, rather appropriately specialises in therapy for the victims of violent crime. So it’s no surprise when he’s called in to try to extract some vital details from a terrified bank teller who’s just been released from a hostage situation at First Allegheny Bank. The teller, Treva Williams, is in a state of shock when Rinaldi arrives at the scene, and she’s able to give a few details about what happened inside the bank. A SWAT team surrounds the area, but any plan to negotiate vaporizes when the bank robber executes everyone–with the exception of the guard who’s left wounded, disgruntled and threatening to sue

While a bloody mop up is underway, Rinaldi promises to accompany Treva to the hospital, but a delay causes him to miss the departing ambulance that’s transporting Treva and the guard to the hospital. Later, however, news breaks that the ambulance never made it to the hospital….

From the moment Rinaldi arrives on the scene outside of the bank, something doesn’t feel right about this bank robbery. Was this because one of the robbers flaked out and ran off? Or was it because the assistant bank manager was cold-bloodedly killed as he bent to pick up his glasses? And what about the bank manager who rather conveniently didn’t go to work that day?

Rinaldi isn’t exactly on the Philadelphia’s Police dept Xmas list, and many of the officers resent his interference–especially Lt. Stu Beigler who thinks Rinaldi has no place sniffing around a crime scene. The bank robbery turns out to be a political hot potato as it’s an election year and District Attorney Leland Sinclair, a smooth, ambitious politician who’s running for Governor in a gentrified city is running on one of those  “tough law-and-order” platforms. The bloodbath at the bank is a PR nightmare for Sinclair, and while he spews forth the usual insipid political platitudes, he doesn’t fool anyone, least of all Rinaldi, about his real concerns. After all, “dead hostages make for lousy campaign ads.”

The clash between outward appearances and inner realities runs through the story as Rinaldi juggles his personal and professional life while finding that he’s drawn deeper into the aftermath of the hostage crisis. Since Rinaldi is a psychologist, the novel is full of his insights into human nature–insights that others miss:

His name, I recalled from Treva, was George. Tall, salt-and-pepper hair trimmed to a severe V at the middle of his forehead. He was in his mid-fifties, and given how tight he wore his olive green uniform, maybe a bit vain about how fit he was. Skin tanned like leather, a strong chin. Hard grey eyes that had seen a lot.

Here’s a scene from inside the bank:

I took another breath and found myself looking at the walls. Maybe to avoid looking down at the bodies. The walls spattered with blood, scarlet blotches that sprayed out in a curving pattern like thrown mud. That dripped slowly in rivulets to the floor like some living Pollock painting.

Bits of flesh and bone fragments pitted the teller’s  stations, the customer counters, the free-standing courtesy desk whose pen still dangled half-way to the floor with its silver chain.

Palumbo shows his screenwriting background in the sharply drawn physicality of that scene which captures the stunning violence and lives cut short in the flash of a moment. An engaging read packed with enough action to push the book into thriller rather than straight crime fiction, Fever Dream checks all the boxes for the genre while continuing the story of a strong series character. While references are made to incidents that took place in the first novel (Mirror Image), it does not appear necessary to have read that one first. However, that said, I would have preferred to read Mirror Image first as it seems that Rinaldi is not the only character to reappear in this second novel, and many of these characters have a history with Rinaldi.

My copy came courtesy of the publisher via netgalley and was read on the kindle.

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