Monday, 9 July 2012

Review - Patrick McGuinness, The Last Hundred Days

The Last Hundred Days is set in Bucharest just before and during the fall of the Communist regime led by Nicolai Ceausescu. I read it during a recent trip to Romania, as one of the few books I was aware of with a Romanian setting (apart from various vampire novels!). It is the first novel of Patrick McGuinness, poet and Professor of Literature at Oxford University, who lived in Romania in the years leading up to the revolution. A reader can, therefore, assume that the general tone of the novel and its portrayal of the atmosphere in Bucharest at that time is likely to be accurate. One of the problems this creates, however, is  uncertainty about how accurately historical events are portrayed, which characters or real or which are not. This is, after all, a work of fiction, but one that is now likely to provide most of my knowledge about an important series of events in European history.

The narrator and chief protagonist is a young Englishman who has just been appointed to a position in the English Department of a Bucharest University. His appointment appears almost an accident, as he did not have the basic qualifications required and failed to turn up for interview. Almost his first test in his new position is to sign a reference written by someone else for a girl he does not know to visit the UK, and after a few qualms of conscience he acquiesces. This introduction sets the scene for much of what will follow – Romania is portrayed as run by a ruling elite who arbitrarily promote or demote their underlings, a country where merit is likely to be a disadvantage and where the key characteristic required for success is likely to be complete obedience to the whims of the people in charge. The vast majority of the population live in fear and poverty, struggling for the basic necessities required for survival while old Bucharest is destroyed around them and replaced by a shoddy alternative. Nonetheless, the people maintain a bitter sense of humour and a vague hope that better days might be to come.

The narrator quickly falls under the spell of a colleague, Leo O’Heix, a man possibly less interested in lecturing even that him.  Leo who has fallen in love with Bucharest and is running a complex black market in all sorts of luxury goods for the elite. Gradually the narrator becomes involved in Leo’s activities, mixing with both the elite and those struggling on the margins of society, whether in promoting the rumoured revolution or trying simply to survive, and realises that there are very few people he can trust.

Some aspects of The Last Hundred Days are reminiscent of Kafka (The Castle or The Trial), other parts of Sasha Baron Cohen’s Dictator. It is well written ad convincing, and having read it I was left with a sense of understanding this period in Romanian history much better. The characters are convincing, even if some of the events seem a little forced at times. Took a little while to get going, but overall a worthwhile read, though not outstanding.

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