September 16, 2011 by markstani
‘The Last Hundred Days’ (pub Seren) is a smart chronicle of the months immediately prior to the downfall of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Patrick McGuinness imbues the story of grim, grey Bucharest with florid turns of phrase you would expect of a poet. The razor-sharp similies begin in the second sentence: the relentless monotony of crumbling Communist life ‘tugged away at the bottom of your day like shingle scraping at a boat’s hull.’
The framework for the tale of Ceausescu’s demise comes in the form of the first-person narrative of a young English academic, who arrives in Bucharest to assume the role of his mysterious departed predecessor. This unnamed narrator is soon inveigled in a dark world of corruption and paranoia involving various members of the party hierarchy.
In this crushingly bleak world, the heightened senses invoked by such fleeting acquiantances are brilliantly handled by McGuinness:
‘her face was dark, her eyes at once stormy and aloof. Her skin was tanned, her mouth lipsticked bright red and her hair black and shiny as a Politburo limousine. Arresting was the word, though we tried to use it sparingly in a police state.’
McGuinness conjures a convincing portrait of the state of blanket paranoia: among his ragged cast of fictional, semi-fictional and real-life characters, you never quite know who to trust, and with good reason: most are hopelessly corrupt, many double-crossing agents of the feared Securitate. It is a city shorn almost entirely of logic or reason, where vast presidential motorcades sweep their passengers to luxuriant lunches through half demolished streets snaking with food queues:
‘you could queue for four hours only for everythign to run out just as you reached the counter. Some forgot what they were waiting for, or couldn’t recognise it when they got it.’
Perhaps the most indelible images of the Romanian revolution came from news footage of dramatically disabled children packed in dark, dirty orphanages; McGuinness explains that many were the result of failed, self-administered attempts at abortion in a society were the practise was not only outlawed, but where a ‘celibacy tax’ was imposed on women who did or could not have children.
It is McGuinness’s admirable desire to stay true to the chronology of real-life events which provides one of the book’s few flaws. While regimes in most of the rest of eastern Europe were collapsing, Romania stayed true to Communism to the very end: only in the final handful of the last hundred days did Ceausescu’s ultimately shocking downfall become inevitable.
This leads to stodgy periods, particularly in the third quarter of the book, when the pace of the narrator’s personal narrative also falters, and begins to beg questions over how such an inconsequential foreigner could continually find himself at the centre of so many key components to the uprising.
But overall, this is a fine, worthy book. If the plot itself strains, the quality of McGuinness’s prose never falters: crisp and evocative and studded with the kind of humour you can’t help feeling the Bucharest residents must have clung to in order to get through those boat-scrapingly boring final days:
‘daily life was felt less as Stalinist terror than as shady ineptocracy – brutish and clumsy, sometimes comical, usually absurd. Our sense of the system’s viciousness was offset by our belief that it was not sufficiently organised to implement that viciousness.’