Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Last Hundred Days, by Patrick McGuinness

The "People's Palace", Bucharest
This novel was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2011. Julian Barnes' superb The Sense of an Ending won the prize that year, but I think The Last Hundred Days deserved at least a spot on the short list. Alas, I was not on the judging panel.

Remember Italo Calvino's book categories? Allow me to add one more:  Books About Places and Times You Would Never Choose to Visit But Which You Find Enthralling In Print. I was very pleased to join Patrick McGuinness on a literary joy-ride through the last hundred days of Nicolae Ceaușescu's rule. This highly autobiographical novel is an extraordinary tour guide for the armchair traveller. I could see, hear and smell 1990s Bucharest without actually getting my nose broken by the secret police.  I like that.

For the readers who protest that they have no interest in Communist-era Romania or the megalomania of the Ceaușescus, I submit to you:  It doesn't matter.  Patrick McGuinness could write a totally captivating user manual for a toaster oven. This man has style.

The unnamed narrator of The Last Hundred Days accepts a teaching post at a Bucharest university, although he's mystified how he got the job. There was never an interview, and his credentials are less than brilliant. But a job is a job, so why not? After the Romanian Customs officials unburden his luggage of his coffee, chocolate, AA batteries and duty-free cigarettes, our man makes his way to his apartment, which is fully and tastefully furnished to an extent that suggests its previous occupant, a Dr. F. Belanger, had simply evaporated the day before. Although the narrator gives the impression of bumbling through life and going where it takes him, he is a keen observer, and he knows his own blind spots:  "Someone arriving in a new place registers everything except what is important."

Dr. Leo O'Heix, another British professor and a Bucharest old hand, takes the new arrival under his wing and out for a welcome dinner after a bibulous cocktail hour. While most Romanians are queueing for bread, the party elite are gathered at Capsia, a fine restaurant with crystal, silver, and fawning waiters. Leo has the explanation for the contrast, as he does for most of the bizarre Bucharest phenomena.
"I blame Dynasty -- they've started showing an episode twice a week. A way of using up a quarter of the three hours of nightly TV. It's supposed to make Romanians disgusted by capitalist excess but all it does is give lifestyle tips to the Party chiefs. Suddenly the Party shops are full of Jacuzzis and ice buckets and cocktail shakers."
In Bucharest, the only certainty is deception. Even visiting dignitaries in motorcades are unwittingly observing elaborate stage sets.
First, the roads would freeze up, then diggers and cranes quivered and stopped dead like animals scenting danger. Men in suits appeared from nowhere, by which I mean everywhere, and broke up the food queues. Then you waited. Ten, twenty minutes, half an hour -- Then a faraway siren; faint at first, then stronger and stronger until you had to stop up your ears. And the cars. One, two, three, four -- six identical black Dacias with black-tinted windows. 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.
The narrator's reflections on his lower middle-class English parents are spare, poignant and astute. I can see these people, and it hurts.
My father scraped the ceiling of his life, a life he thought he was too big for. But he wasn't too big: it had simply contracted around him from lack of use...
When she broke down that day she just stopped. It was as if she had died already but left us the body to help us acclimatise to her loss. That was typical of her -- the gentleness of her going...
Him I grew to hate, and it energised me. But I couldn't make a life out of it, or not a life that was my own. So I discovered forgiveness, and the secret malice of it: people forgive not out of grandeur of spirit but as a way of freeing themselves. The forgiver always floats free, the forgiven slides a little further down the soft shute to hell. Maybe that's why so many religions use forgiveness as a secret weapon. Thus I forgave him, and made sure he knew it.
In Romania, however, even history is unreliable. (As I look at the revisionism of the Malaysian history textbooks over the past decade, I think communism isn't the only butt of this joke...)
"You know the old joke: with communism the future is certain, it's just the past that keeps changing."
One thing -- perhaps the only thing besides deception -- that Bucharest residents can be sure of is heavy-handed oppression. The casual, matter-of-fact way in which the secret service agent delivers a nose-breaking punch to the narrator's face without missing a beat of his sentence caused me to gasp audibly. Mr. McGuinness gave no lead-up to that blow, and I'm sure it was simply routine to the thug who threw it.
It was a place where violence was not wreaked or loosed or unleashed, or any of those emotive, dynamic, driving verbs; violence here was administered.
Our narrator looks at his own dodgy academic and work history and can pretty well work out how he ended up where he is, but he wonders what other foreigners are doing in Romania. Leo, like many of us who wind up in odd places and are asked how it  happened, doesn't really have an enlightening answer.
After one of his guided walks through the disappearing city, I asked him how he had finished up here. The verb to finish up seemed appropriate when it came to explaining one's presence in the English department at Bucharest university in 1989, but never more so than when Leo used it: "One day I just woke up in my bed in East Molesey, and thought: 'Apart from a wife, two kids, mortgage, home and job, there's nothing holding me here' and now look: here I am, Comrade, here I am!"
The narrator makes a trip into the countryside, ostensibly to help some young Romanians defect across the border. Again, no one in this episode is what he seems to be -- our man is still taking people and things too much at face value. He gapes at the agricultural wealth in the rural fields.
After the grey privations of Bucharest, it was a shock to see such fertility. Everything grew. On all sides there were tomatoes, corn, cabbages; orchards heavy with fruit and bright fields of vegetables. The earth threw it all forth, and the sun ripened it generously. In the vineyards the fat white grapes hung on their boughs, the vines rising in perfectly aligned terraces. Melons the size of footballs lay on the earth, umbilicals ranging off across the dark soil; greenhouses and polytunnels stretched off into the distance. "All for export," Leo saw me scanning the fields, "most of the poor sods in the factories have never even seen a melon, except in Dynasty. This is naturally a land of plenty; it's the bloody destitution that's artificial."
Leo and the narrator, like most expats in Bucharest at the time, end up socialising at this foreign embassy or that one. Leo wheels and deals in the diplomatic circles for his black market business, and the narrator seems to come along primarily for the companionship and food. He's unimpressed with the young, officious British ambassador, Wintersmith, who doesn't really seem to have a good grasp of what's really happening in Romania.  The older and more seasoned Belgian diplomat, Ozeray, is amused by the Brit's naivete and recommends keeping to a course of quiet inaction.
"Ah yes, quite so. I could not help overhearing your wise analysis. I remember when I was just beginning my diplomatic career." Ozeray paused and closed his eyes, inviting us to join him in a prehistory where diplomats and dinosaurs roamed the same mirrored banqueting halls, "My mentor, Baron Henri Nivarlais -- a great diplomat, oversaw fifty years of the most radical change the world has known without batting an eyelid -- the Baron, he said to me: 'Young man, in diplomacy there are two kinds of problem: small ones and large ones. The small ones will go away by themselves, and the large ones you will not be able to do anything about. The biggest challenges in your career will come from the temptation to act. The test of your mettle will be how nobly you surmount it.' Very fine advice, Mr Midwinter, do you agree?"
"Well, that's not really what I meant, to be honest." Wintersmith was struggling. "I meant -- well -- there's plenty for the diplomat to do."
Ozeray's smile drained him of the will to go on. When the Belgian finally loosened his grip, Wintersmith backed off into the crowd, a beaten man.
Another of the horrifying aspects of communism, Romanian style, is the push toward homogeneity.  Cultures of ethnic minorities obliterated, eclectic buildings razed.  Anything that spoke of a unique identity was suspect.
...out in the provinces, in Sibiu, Timișoara, Moldova, areas where the minorities lived, all signs of different cultures were being eradicated. It was desolation: villages that had stood for centuries were bulldozed in a morning, to be replaced with high-rise blocks surrounded by scrubland or factory complexes that looked like abandoned galactic penal colonies. Romania was being turned into a huge, pastless no-place...
In Bucharest, Leo scrambles to record the historic architecture that is levelled on a daily basis, much of it to make way for the constant expansion of the People's Palace.  [Note: Leo refers to it as the world's largest structure, and that's not quite true. It's the largest civilian building; the US Pentagon is larger.]
"You see that?" Leo asked, pointing at the world's largest structure, the Palace of the People, an entire horizon's worth of concrete, steel and marble cladding. "That's the world's biggest mausoleum. When they've finished building it, the whole of communism will climb in there, shut the doors, and die. They think they're building the city of the future. What they've done is build their own tomb. The Megalo-Necropolis, the new city of the dead, waiting for its tenants."
The government, in a particularly vindictive gesture, decides not simply to raze an Orthodox monastery, but to blow the venerable building to bits before a gathered crowd of mourning citizens.
The monastery of Saints Cyril and Methodias had stood for centuries on the south-west bank of the canal. Now it was in the way, its four-hundred-year-old tower an offence against the new skyline. It had withstood earthquakes, fires, woodworm, the Turks, rot and neglect, but now it would make way for the "People's Leisure Park".
Everyone watches the growing civil disturbance in Timișoara with astonishment and hope. Ceaușescu had observed the collapse of other communist governments in eastern Europe and confidently asserted that his was not going anywhere, thank you. Yet protests were taking place, and the police were not altogether united in suppressing them.  Might the current regime be overthrown? The unthinkable was becoming less so every day.

Leo, ever practical, raises the topic that so many revolutionaries fail to consider:  What happens next? We are rid of the tyrant, but do we have a solid plan to put a working government immediately in his place?  A country in the wake of a coup d'etat is a jubilant place, but also a very dangerous one.  Nature abhors a vacuum, after all.
"There'll be time to address that in due course, but the moment the borders open and the government collapses, they'll be back".
"Who's they?"
"The gangsters, dealers, traffickers, the pimps and fascists, the Jew-haters and ethnic cleansers -- you've seen it starting already in Yugoslavia, or whatever it's called now, and it'll happen here."
The Last Hundred Days has both style and substance, and I'm pleased that I didn't toss it aside on the premise that I had no pre-existing interest in Romania. Patrick McGuinness built it for me as I made my way through his book.  I see that, besides being a professor of French and comparative literature at Oxford, Mr. McGuinness is also an award-winning poet. Poetry has never been my genre of choice, but maybe he can spark that interest, too.


  1. Spot on about the rewriting of history in Malaysian textbooks. Pretty soon they will blame Anwar Ibrahim for everything from the secession of Singapore to World War II and 9-11.

    1. The sense that I got from reading about the Romanian revision of history was one of unsettling disorientation. We count on the past to be as solid as the ground we stand on. Revisionism and earthquakes leave us in a tenuous place, wondering what is trustworthy. When certain groups notice themselves being expunged from Malaysia's history books, I expect they too will feel as though the solid ground has been taken from them. "But we were there, too... weren't we?"


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