Book Review: Patrick McGuinness, The Last Hundred Days

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.

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5 Comments

  1. Am reading Herta Muller right now….her books focus on the same period. Strange times….

    Reply
    • Having a History degree, when I was living through that period, it reminded me strongly of the European revolutions of 1848, when dramatic events in one country would be followed quickly by dramatic events in another. But those revolutions nearly all led to failure within a couple of years. In 1848 the railways were the powerful new technology that enabled the rapid spread of revolution. In the Arab Spring it was the internet. In the fall of the Communist regimes, I think rather it was the fact that they were all except Yugoslavia and Romania held in place by Soviet power, which was then deliberately withdrawn (without realising how radical the consequences would be) and this created an expectation which destabilised Ceausescu’s Romania too (plus, all his neighbours except Serbia wanted him to fall, so he had no hope of outside help).

      Reply
  2. My father speaks of history the same way, with so much conviction…must read more history to make sense of now….

    Reply
  3. This echoed with thoughts I’d been having about the deportation of Romanians gypsies from London back to Rumania… and how Patrick Leigh Fermor described his encounters with gypsies in pre-war Rumania… and I wondered how things could have changed so much and brought us to this pass… but when one thinks how first Communism and then the Ceauscescu’s stripped the country bare, inevitably the poorest section of the population suffered most, and were reduced to the appalling circumstances they’re now accustomed to living in….
    I can’t see that the EU is the answer for Rumania as things are…

    Reply
    • Yes, I don’t know how Romania will develop. The prospects for Bulgaria look much more promising. And yet Romania has a wealth of natural resources and plenty of tourism potential. There is a long tradition of political corruption, but up until the Second World War it was a reasonably prosperous country. Indeed, before the Turkish invasions, the whole of Eastern Europe (south of Russia) was economically and culturally well up with the West.

      And yes, when things get hard, the people at the bottom of the pile suffer worst, and anyone a bit different can be demonised.

      Reply

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