‘The Last Hundred Days’
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
Is it ok to big up a TLS contributor on this site? If so, here goes. Patrick McGuinness’s first novel, with the Napoleonic title The Last Hundred Days has recently been published in France (as Les Cent Derniers Jours), and been shortlisted for three prizes (the British edition, published by Seren, was shortlisted for the Booker in 2011). Sean O'Brien praised it in the TLS, describing it as "both funny and horrifying".
When I read the novel (before it was shortlisted for the Booker, I hasten to add) I was knocked out by it. It is set in Bucharest in 1989, in the months before the fall of Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu (somehow husband and wife seem inextricably linked, and they suffered the same grim fate of course). The story is told by a young English lecturer who has accidentally landed a job at the university and is pitched into a world of absurdity, surveillance, corruption and police brutality.
The narrator reflects on his new home: “The Paris of the East . . . it was an epithet I’d heard before. Second-string cities are always described as the somewhere of somewhere else” – how true that sounds.
McGuinness describes the sheer boredom – “Totalitarian boredom . . . is a state of expectation already heavy with its own disappointment, the event and its anticipation braided together in a continuous loop of tension and anti-climax” – and misery of living in a totalitarian state, where people queue for food “in sub-zero temperatures or unbearable heat . . . . No one knew how much there was of anything. Often you didn’t even know what there was. You could queue for four hours only for everything to run out just as you reached the counter”.
As regular readers of the TLS will know, McGuinness is a French specialist based in Oxford, with a particular interest in francophone Belgian literature (he has written a monograph on Maurice Maeterlinck). His most recent collection of poems Jilted City (Carcanet, 2010) contains an attractive sequence of poems, “Blue Guide”, on Belgian railway stations, culminating in the rather Proustian “Stations where the train doesn’t stop”: “Etterbeek, la Hulpe. Epinal, Rixensart, Profondsart, . .”.
Jilted City closes with a section of translations from the fictional Romanian poet Liviu Campanu (1932–94), “a poet and university lecturer from Bucharest who fell out of favour with the Ceaușescu regime” and was sent to Constanța on the Black Sea (formerly the Tomis of Ovid’s exile), his “letters from Bucharest, still wet / from being steamed open”. Campanu appears in the novel, a victim of repressive bureaucracy, as does another poet in exile in Constanța who has come to Bucharest for the street protests: “I recognised Andrei Liviu the poet, deathly pale but walking steadily”.
The absurdities multiply: Elena Ceaușescu who, in spite of leaving school at 14, gained a PhD in Chemistry from the University of Bucharest, is “Comrade Academician Professor” and heads the unlikely-sounding Romanian Cosmic Research Centre. One of the most memorable scenes in the book has Slobodan Milosevic, on a state visit to Romania, looking on in contempt at the drunken antics of the Ceaușescus’ playboy son Nicu in a Bucharest nightclub, forcing himself on young women to a beat of “pogrom rock”.
McGuinness had the good fortune, or misfortune, to be in Bucharest in 1989. In an interview with Florence Noiville in Le Monde des livres last Friday, he reveals that “there was nothing to do” there. As a consequence he set about taking everything in. Noiville points to the “dreamlike” dimension of this “strange and poetic novel”; it is both those things, and extremely well written: a page-turner (although we know what’s coming) as well as a profound meditation on truth and moral compromise.