By Ian McCabe
The Last Hundred Days is a political and historical thriller and the debut novel from Oxford University professor and poet, Patrick McGuinness. Long-listed for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, it is told via the perspective of a young and wide-eyed English student in Bucharest, as he experiences the final days and sudden demise of Nicolae Ceausescu’s tyrannical regime and communist rule over Romania.
In 1980’s Romania, boredom was a state of extremity. There was nothing neutral about it: it strung you out and stretched you; it tugged away at the bottom of your day like shingle scraping at a boat’s hull. 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 in its own disappointment, the event and its anticipation braided together in a continuous loop of tension and anti-climax.
There is one thing that is instantly unique about The Last Hundred Days, and it’s that, before even opening the book, we already know the ending. Those old enough will have lived through and remember the final days of communism and the execution of Romania’s corrupt Dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu on Christmas day 1989. Others may have read books and websites and even seen videos of the execution itself on YouTube. Regardless, the events and aftermath are well documented for us all to see. Still, The Last Hundred Days isn’t about the destination but rather the journey and how it came to be.
The Last Hundred Days is narrated by an unnamed English student, possibly a semi-fictional version of McGuinness himself, as he spent time in Romania prior to the revolution. The Englishman arrives in Bucharest to take a job that he never applied for and his duties are never quite made clear to him. As soon as he arrives in the communist state, he finds that his new apartment is still occupied by the belongings of his predecessor, without any explanation of what happened to him. This sets the tone for the corruption and repression that the city of Bucharest is ravaged by.
The unnamed narrator soon finds himself caught in the middle of the doomed and paranoid dictatorship, dealing with spies, diplomats, black-marketers, people smugglers, party apparatchiks – as well as their daughters – plus many more characters either central to dictatorship or innocently impacted, giving him, and us, a slight insight into the corruption.
We were listening to the fall of the Berlin Wall. “They will all be killed,” Ottila said as the East Berliners hacked away at the concrete […]. Leo and I cheered. Ottilia’s reaction was different – she really believed they would be killed, at any moment the tanks would roll in. It was just as well it was happening in reality, since she would not have been able to imagine it: the fall of the wall, even as she heard it unfolding, was not something real to her. It took Leon’s expertise with a television and a cable signal box to give Ottilia what she most wanted: live images, direct from Berlin.
McGuinness paints a firsthand, authentically lyrical, yet at times depressing and upsetting picture of Bucharest, a city once known as the ‘Paris of the East’ in the pre-Ceausescu days, buried under the communist regime’s architecture. From the burials littered around Ceausescu’s giant palace to the often empty, bored and dusty streets, littered only with militia men creating agoraphobia in the city’s tired and troubled citizens, you can picture and feel every little detail of the devastation and intensity which assembled over Bucharest at the time. His descriptions of his characters and observations are often, conversely, comical and witty, with some fantastic lines coming from the narrator’s sleazy companion, Leo. It comes as no surprise that McGuinness has a background in poetry.
Yet, here lies one of the novel’s biggest faults. At a mighty 365 pages, The Last Hundred Days is too long. It’s reliance on exposition and description almost becomes a hindrance and as a result the story takes its time to really get moving. It often feels repetitive and drags; once we have a picture of the state of the city, we don’t necessarily need another one. Ceausescu may have loved his motorcades back in the day, but it doesn’t mean we, as readers, will. The conclusion also feels sudden and slightly rushed.
There isn’t much of a plot to The Last Hundred Days either. We are mainly observing the events, rather than being invested in them, something which can also be said of the protagonist. McGuinness does a fantastic job of portraying the paranoia, corruption and chaos of the time and, with the exception of a few niggles here and there, it feels authentic. But it reads more like a poetic style of journalism at times, more of an account than a narrative. We don’t learn a lot about the protagonist, other than that he lost his father after a lengthy battle with cancer prior to leaving for Romania, something which actually ties beautifully and metaphorically into parts of the story. But sadly, there is no real connection with the characters and no investment in his story, or even his romantic side plot. He doesn’t really do a lot, other than merely exist and float along.
On the other hand, many of the supporting characters keep the reader enthralled. Some are almost comedic, yet so believable considering the circumstances. Even though we know where the story is heading, there’s still a want to turn the page and be enticed by this era and be a voyeur into something that many of us in the Western world could not even comprehend.
The pavements looked empty, but the shadows were crowded with militia in grey uniforms. You only saw them when your eyes had become accustomed to the darkness: they took shape, limb by limb, from the penumbra they lived in. In old Bucharest, rundown Parisian arrondissements had been crossed with the suburbs of Istanbul, East and West were in perpetual architectural dance. Plants hung from balconies where people sat in the dark, backlit by the blue of their televisions. Candles flickered in the windows of orthodox churches. Shift workers stood at beer counters, drinking silently, eyes down, their elbows touching.
The Last Hundred Days is definitely worth a read for fans of stories of a historical and political nature, but can be a slog to get through and feel slightly convoluted. It’s not your conventional thriller story of spies and intrigue and feels convincing enough that it’s easy to feel it is a non-fictional account of the events of 89. It suffers from a slow beginning, some repetition and at times over-reliance on exposition. Once it gets going though, you should find yourself hooked, not necessarily because of the narrative but because the journey will feel so authentic, you’ll feel as if you’re there.
7 OUT OF 10