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The Last Hundred Days (2011)

The Last Hundred Days (2011)
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3.69 of 5 Votes: 2
ISBN
1854115413 (ISBN13: 9781854115416)
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English
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seren books
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The Last Hundred Days (2011)
The Last Hundred Days (2011)

About book: I read this book thinking it was a non-fiction work, an historical account of the authors own experiences in late-era communist Romania. (I read it on a Kindle, with a different cover, where the words 'A Novel' are less obvious that they are on the cover shown here!). Consequently much of my reading of this book was spent in a state of high incredulity at the unbelievable fortune of the author to have been in the right time and the right place so often, to have had an experience so that was so perfectly calibrated to tell the whole story of the fall of the Ceauşescu regime. That I then found out it was a novel does not particularly diminish my admiration for it, but it does make me feel like a bit of a fool. As it happens Patrick McGuinness was in Bucharest as it all went down and by all accounts did have an experience not dissimilar to the narrator, but presumably his story-stumbling luck (if you can call it that) was not as quite good or clean as the narrators. As the title indicates, the story starts at the beginning of the end, and a young English academic finds himself rather haphazardly accepting a post at a university in Bucharest. He is adrift, too embittered for such a young man and not really looking for anything, not really sure of anything, and so jumps into it in that thoughtless way that young people make decisions that change their life. 'There can’t have been many people who came to Ceauşescu’s Romania for their first taste of freedom.' Reading this, I was put in mind frequently of another 'I married a dictator' type book, The Last King of Scotland, with Ceauşescu-era Romania taking the place of Amin-era Uganda. Structurally it is almost identical; a footloose young Brit takes a job under a totalitarian regime, tries to distance himself from the crimes of the state that pays his wages, but finds himself swimming in various murky waters, struggling to stay afloat as events spin out of his control. What Last King of Scotland did, with varying degrees of success, was  a succession of morally ambiguous images and set pieces, the slow burn of doubt turning to a black and gnawing rot of complicity. Although here there is slightly too-frequently a sense of our narrator having been conveniently placed in order to observe some historic event or prescient vision, McGuinness is generally quite successful in letting these ambiguities seep into the story. Much of the detail is faultlessly observed and meticulously realised, with grisly facts about the institutionalised terrors worked deftly a compact narrative. 'At 10 am this morning, two Securitate men paid her a visit. All miscarriages in Romania were investigated. The statistics on illegal or self-administered abortions here were frighteningly high and frighteningly grisly, Leo explained later, and many of them produced the dramatically disabled children discovered, not long after the regime’s collapse, filling the country’s orphanages.' It is also to the novels credit that Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu themselves remain shadowy presences until they are finally and mesmerisingly thrust onto centre stage. They are oft-spoken about, once or twice seen, but McGuinness uses their presence much more sparingly than Idi Amin in Last King... Here, the private lives of the strange couple themselves are left to other historians and instead the focus is fixed on the banality and ubiquity of the brutal state Securitate and the toxic brew that fermented from a once-Utopian vision of society.  His narrator has a distinctly Bogartian hard-boiledness, toughing out intimidation and intrigue with a taciturn glower, taking punches for his troubles, drinking hard liquor and sleeping with mysterious broads. He is a natural observer, and the best work is done with the casually placed detail, hints of the all-encompassing horrors of a corrupt regime advancing remorselessly towards mad and bloody self-destruction. 'At last, about two hundred yards into the wood, Leo brought out a torch. There was a path of flattened nettles and brambles, and great coils of bindweed thick as a child’s wrist. There were plants here that existed in permanent shade, like those fish that live miles below sea level, fleshy and filled with darkness. ‘Wolf shit.’ Leo aimed the torch’s beam at a pile of whitened, chalky turds. The torchlight made the ground sway beneath us. I tripped and as I fell forward I caught sight of a fox trap, gaping and rusty, the fanged zero of a shark’s mouth. People had been caught in there and bled to death or, if managing to free themselves, hobbled home, bones crushed and flesh gouged.' 'Men and women sleeping in their kitchens with their hobs on for warmth, then dying of carbon monoxide poisoning when the gas cut out and then resumed as they slept.' There is a certain rigidity to the construction of The Last Hundred Days though, the impeccable attention to detail and the mixture of historical observation doesn't leave a lot of room for more natural human stories to grow. It can feel mildly schematic, too often the romances, friendships and acquaintances fail to really convince and feel as though they are placed within a framework to justify the book status as novel instead of history. McGuinness makes the right noises, the friends and enemies and lovers are reproduced realistically enough, they walk and talk with cleverly calibrated personalities and distinctive voices, it's just that none of their struggles and passions demand to be told or cry out at you from the pages the way really vital writing does.  It is Romania itself whose story demands to be told, a story often forgotten in the chaos of the late twentieth century and, in a way, The Last Hundred Days might be the most accessible way to tell it, without the need for all the slow-moving and weighty ballast that history proper requires. There is a sense here of communist Romania as something of a hermetic nation, lost in the great states conflict between Russia and the US. But it is also an ancient country, and some of the most elegiac portions of the book deal with the razing of the old Bucharest churches and landmarks by the regime, to be replaced by prefab, identikit slabs of communist architecture. 'The world’s largest structure, the Palace of the People, an entire horizon’s worth of concrete, steel and marble cladding...that’s the world’s biggest mausoleum. When they’ve finished building it, the whole of communism will climb in there, shut the doors, and die. They think they’re building the city of the future. What they’ve done is build their own tomb. The Megalo-Necropolis, the new city of the dead, waiting for its tenants.’ The Palace of the People As a vision of lost world thawing, and a gripping, doom-laden, dread filled almost-memoir,  The Last Hundred Days,  this is a very good book indeed. It's odd to read a novel which works better as a history than much actual history writing does, and if McGuiness's intent was to tell a story about a nation then it is a success. It is Romania in the eighties which sticks in the mind, the life of the regime itself, rather than Ceauşescu's story or that of the narrator. There are horrors which can truly take your breath away; the casual sadism of the terminally bored, the iconoclastic arrogance of those who are building the future and the distended and distorted lenses through which people can convince themselves that they are doing good, even as the screams and cries of the tortured ring in their ears. Published  by Seren Books, 356 pages.

'The Last Hundred Days' 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.'
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Reviews
Elaine
Very very atmospheric -- a wonderful job of conveying the isolation, decripitude, mania, hidden corners, and mad luxuries of a nightmarish Bucharest at the height of paranoia in 1989. The telling details are lovingly rendered so that you feel the city around you yet are never bored by the description. The city is the most wonderful and noteworthy character. And the "plot" is fairly clever and well realized. The issues come in (and this book was almost a 2 star instead of 3 because of them) for two main reasons: a) people speak in seminars -- explaining political background or observations rather than allowing ideas to emerge from conversation, interaction, and the atmosphere and b) who the main character -- an utter cipher -- is, and how he manages to win the friendship of all the key (and opposing) figures in Bucharest at the time, is never explained. Our narrator is such an enigma that we have no idea whatsoever why the beautiful and wealthy Cilea (in love with someone else) would take up with him romantically, why her father, a leading Communist, would befriend him, why a grand old man like Trofim would have him as a confidante, why Leo, the magnetic heart of their little circle, would adopt him, etc. etc. etc. We are meant to believe that he's a working class English 21 year old with 1 year of uni, and an otherwise apparently invisible prior life as the obscure child of unloveable parents, and yet that he finds himself at the epicenter of Bucharest's intrigues, adopted and favored by nearly all, including the elites. McGuinness would have done better to fill in the blanks a bit more -- after a while that absence (and absence of sense) at the novel's core grates.
Zanna
2.5 starsThe nameless narrator of this faux-memoir seems to fall from the sky into the last days of the Ceausescu regime and the massive gravitational field of the enigmatic Leo O'Heix, oafish, corrupt, generous bon viveur, embodiment of decadent bourgeois capitalism. This story is his, but as he is The Magician (surely this is one of the six/nine/twelve basic plots?) he needs to be observed in preternatural action and not endowed with psychology.Like the narrator, Leo has no past. More accurately, they both have painful pasts which do not figure in the story at all; the unwanted histories they have jettisoned tip them into the urgency of the present moment unencumbered. Similarly, the regime (the other protagonist) arrives divested of historical context. In the opening paragraphs, McGuiness effortlessly evokes the grey grinding misery of life in Bucharest with an evocative description of 'totalitarian boredom' and acute collocations like 'malign lethargy'. You can tell he's a poet. This tone-setting done, he spends few words on the suffering of the proletariat, instead focussing on the grotesque luxuries enjoyed by the tiers of the privileged: foreigners diplomats, party members and their families.McGuiness, again effortlessly, scandalises this reproduction of privilege that features so offensively in non-fictional manifestations of communism. I think of Barbara Demmick's book Nothing to Envy. But while Demmick tells the real stories of ordinary people, presenting an incontrovertible indictment of the North Korean regime, McGuiness appropriates his chosen context for a narrative of heroic individualism, in the personality of Leon and his milieu, in which activism and community are envisioned as haphazard acts of interested philanthropy. Oh no! Am I making the foolish mistake of approaching The Last Hundred Days ideologically? Alas, I am.OK, my position. I've never studied politics. I currently have many of my political conversations with a Romanian entrepreneur who grew up in the abject misery of the socialist regime. I'm not a communist: I believe the state is violence, reject the concept of the nation state, and refuse to oblige anyone to suffer for 'justice' (this gets tricky but I'm dealing). You can call me anarcha-feminist in training. Practically, and for the purposes of relaxed dinner-party conversation, I will agree that mixed economies work: most people can more or less muggle along in a society where the state works for the common good by providing some stuff like healthcare, regulates the excesses of capitalist greed, and refrains from trying to plan & control everything.Where was I? I see reviews by Romanians saying this book is accurate, and others saying it is inaccurate, and other non-Romanian reviewers saying it doesn't matter because it's fiction. In my opinion, it does matter: I think it's irresponsible to write inaccurate historical fiction about highly political subjects. But it matters less to me that McGuiness might have misrepresented aspects of the historical context than that he has rather transparently used that context to mount a refutation of the ideas behind socialism. Of course, the highly visible failure of communism is its own critique! One hardly need do any work, but McGuiness happily goes out of his way, not contenting himself with regularly (and haha yes rightly in my view) ridiculing historicism in author voice: "You know the old joke: with communism the future is certain, it's just the past that keeps changing" he creates two characters, Petre and Trofim, who rebel against the regime but defend socialist ideals, and has them articulate their positions in order to dismiss them. Petre's argument is bookended with derisive assertions of its wrongness, and is presented so weakly I want to call it a straw man, while Trofim's, though stilted, is more convincing:Do you think that you who live in capitalist countries would believe in the right to a job, a decent wage, free health and education if socialism had not shown you the way? The welfare state? The National Health Service? Socialism showed you that what your employers and bosses sometimes gave you out of paternalism or pangs of social conscience was in fact life's necessities, the minimum. You only think of them as rights because of socialism. Until socialism they were merely privileges or random acts of charity or luck. And that is before I talk of social mobility... Capitalism owes its better self to us'McGuiness is having none of this. His narrator brushes the 'outburst of idealism' aside and a couple of paragraphs later recharacterises it as 'fundamentalist' and then has hero Leo call it 'sophistry', 'bollocks' and 'theology'. Just in case you were even thinking about sucumbing to the slightest socialist leaning. So for me, this is literature in service of capitalist ideology. By stripping its portrait of Romania of historical detail it deflects any attempt to explain its miserable disintegration by any argument except the total bankruptcy of leftist thought. The specific brutality of the Ceasescu regime, its obscene excesses of propaganda lies and the death of culture, expressiveness, opportunity and any spark of joy that makes life actually worth living it imposed on the Romanian people even when it did not actually murder, torture or imprison them, is all laid at the door of socialism generally, to be weaponised as needed.Right I'm done with that, sorry. I think I've used all my political chips, but I'll just have a jab at the presentation of gender and relationships while I'm here. The narrator mainly functions as witness-to-Leo's-antics, but he has a couple of affairs which serve to illustrate felt response to the stranger-than-fiction reality around him. The first relationship impedes his autonomy; he is used by his partner (though the whole affair and especially the yucky sex scenes work as fulfillment of male fantasy - we are meant to identify entirely with his perspective). Thus, it cannot be authentic because it violates the norms of heteropatriarchy. His partner, retaining her autonomy, is consistently presented as amoral and self-centred. The second relationship is presented as authentic because he responds emotionally; this partner surrenders her independence to him so all is right with the world.The book starts off well, slightly overdone, in a way that seems quite appropriate: the humiliation and boredom of life under the regime is leavened by its sheer weirdness: the hint of baroque excess gives the text its charm, softens us up to be seduced by Leo. By the end, McGuiness seems to have lost momentum, and I was bored. Perhaps it's deliberate! Like everyone still alive, I was relieved when the revolution came. But, starting with the corpses of Timisoara, there are too many nameless victims serving this tale. The people Leo's actions affect negatively are always invisible, while everyone he helps individually commands our sympathy as they do his. But of course, life is like that, there is only a choice between bad Leo (selfish capitalism) and worse Ceausescu (totalitarian socialism), isn't there?
Veronique Zancarini
Pros: Even though the events related in this story are quite dramatic, the tone and style never fall into some over dramatic descriptions. The characters seem to accept their fate and/or make certain choices without ever trying to make tortuous explanations about their reasons. There are no goodies or baddies there (or more exactly, all of the characters are capable of the worst as well as the best). This in itself makes them realistic and more humane.The Cons: the main character, young and inexperienced, seems to be blessed with some sort of luck that makes him meet and befriend everybody who played an important role in these last days of the Ceaucescu's regime. He manages to meet all these people in a really short period of time and seems to win their trust and support... something which I imagine highly unlikely in a system/society when sometimes you could not even your family members.
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