>> Thursday, November 17, 2011
The socialist state is in crisis, the shops are empty and old Bucharest vanishes daily under the onslaught of Ceaucescu's demolition gangs. Paranoia is pervasive and secret service men lurk in the shadows. In The Last 100 Days, Patrick McGuinness creates an absorbing sense of time and place as the city struggles to survive this intense moment in history. He evokes a world of extremity and ravaged beauty from the viewpoint of an outsider uncomfortably, and often dangerously, close to the eye of the storm as the regime of 1980s Romania crumbles to a bloody end.I read this one for my bookclub in September; we have a tradition of choosing something off the Man Booker longlist the month it's announced. It was a bit of a problem to get hold of it, as I take it it was a surprise nominee, and most bookstores seemed to have ran out!
The narrator is a young man who moves to Romania in the late 80s. He's been mysteriously hired to work in a university there, even though he never actually interviewed for the job. Before long, he's well in the thick of things, involved with people as dissimilar as a foreign professor who's up to his neck in the black market, the beautiful daughter of a man high up in the Party, an intellectual who used to be high up in the Party himself before he was defenestrated, and an idealistic doctor. And though he doesn't know it, December 1989 and the Romanian revolution are rapidly approaching.
The book took a while to get going, but once it did, it was fascinating. I knew only the basics about Romania, so most here was completely new and mindblowing to me. One of the first books that we read in the book club was The File, in which the author gets access to his Stasi file from the time he lived in East Germany and finds out who amongst the people around him were informing on him. That book was supposed to reflect what it was like to live under constant surveillance, in a police state, but compared to this, it was dry and forgettable, telling rather than showing. The Last Hundred Days made me really feel what it must have been like, definitely a case of fiction feeling truer than non-fiction, sometimes. The fact that our narrator was actually an observer, a foreigner who didn't really face anything worse than deportation, made no difference. In fact, I think it probably made it more understandable to me.
The Last Hundred Days was also beautifully written. McGuinness is a poet, and it shows. I'm not talking about overblown "lyrical" language, the writing is actually clean and relatively spare, it's just that he has a knack for choosing words and imagery that feel fresh and absolutely perfect.
MY GRADE: A B+.