This novel is set in Ceausescu’s Romania just before his violent fall. The author is stated to have been in Romania at this time. I remember the atmosphere of amazement and excitement in Europe at the sudden and revolutionary changes of that period, when the certainties I’d grown up with about the Soviet Union became uncertain and Communist regimes across Eastern and Central Europe crashed (East Germany, Czechoslovakia) or legislated themselves out of existence (Hungary, with Poland and Bulgaria in between) and the dramatic events in Romania, an uprising, the army changing sides, a couple of weeks of confused fighting, the execution of the former dictator.
I’m fascinated by authoritarian regimes, how they arise, how they operate, how they fall. Patrick McGuinness’s book seems true to life – a huge proportion of the population spying on others, spies spying on spies, the official propaganda inhabiting a different world to the people, the privileged and powerful enjoying their pleasures but insecure because of purges and mysterious reorganisations. It does read a bit like someone took Kafka as a blueprint for a new society and political system, but with more heavy eating and drinking, poverty and squalidity.
So as docu-drama it works, I think. What about as a novel? The narrator is an Englishman arriving as a lecturer at a university, a relatively decent but rather weak man who is easily led. He’s a credible character. There are some oddities: the nature of his work is barely explained and the reasons for his appointment seem mysterious (but he isn’t either a Securitate or a Western agent). I’m not sure this approach works better than a naturalistic one. The other characters are credible, but with the exception of an old Jewish former Communist minister who’s fallen out with Ceausescu and is manoevring to help bring him down and return to power, they don’t have much depth. It reads easily, though, and held my attention right up to the ambiguous ending (some evils end but some flourish in the new setting).
A good docu-drama, then, and a middling to quite good novel.