Within weeks of publication Patrick McGuinness’s debut novel, The Last Hundred Days found itself on the Man Booker long list, and deservedly so, although it failed to make the shortlist on the 5th September. Whatever. Set in Bucharest, the novel reawakens in the reader that state of stunned disbelief in the autumn of 1989 as successive Soviet bloc countries underwent bloodless revolutions, until there was only Romania there at the end of the queue, making a bloody hash of it. The novel describes the despicable oppression and deprivation of the Romanian people in the build-up to that coup, and paints a sordid picture of the corruption and hypocrisy of their rulers.
At the same time it feels oddly contemporary, especially in the way that a grasping elite escape the consequences of their actions and rise above the chaos that they perpetrate. Not that the Ceausescu’s themselves did, of course, their messy trial and execution can still be viewed on youtube, and it provides a resonant coda to the reading of this novel.
The opening chapter is superb, its discourse on the state of boredom offering a kind of conceptual counterpoint to the unfurling narrative, with its cast of impressively drawn characters, that is almost Tolstoyan in scope: “In the West we’ve always thought of boredom as slack time, life’s lift music sliding off the ear. Totalitarian boredom is different. It’s 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.” McGuinness is an accomplished poet and writes with superb clarity. The novel is littered with aperçus of a brilliance that has the reader reaching for a pencil. Here is Bucharest: “a heat-beaten brutalist maze whose walls and towers melted like sugar, and where the roots of trees erupted through the pavements.” And here is the unctuous consular attaché Wintersmith (straight out of Greene-land) and the British expat community, “where largely identical people fuck each other interchangeably”; here is the Boulevard of Socialist Victory: “a vast avenue that didn’t so much vanish into the distance as use it up, drawing everything around into itself.” And here is the grim Stoicu, interior minister and Ceausescu sidekick, with the “eyes of a man who sought in those around him the lowest motivation and always found it.”
I was fascinated to learn that Ceausescu was so paranoid that he would duplicate, no, triplicate his daily motorcade through Bucharest with simultaneous decoy performances in other parts of the city: “sirens, cars, Ceausescu’s motorcade – the real one and its decoys hurtling through Europe’s saddest dictatorship. One of the cars was for the Ceausescu’s dog, and he even had two doggy decoys, a punchline to a joke no one could any longer bear to tell about a world whose brutality was matched only by its absurdity.”
McGuinness was himself in Bucharest just prior to the fall of the regime, and his observations appear to have the scent of authenticity. This is a novel that rages and flows by turn, but rarely disappoints, tugging caustically towards its inevitable denouement.
A version of this review appeared in The Independent on 8 September 2011.