The Last Hundred Days (Patrick McGuinness)

***

In this book, our un-named narrator is a working-class ex-student from London who finds himself teaching English in Bucharest at the end of the Ceausescu regime.  He comes under the protection of Leo O’Heix, who combines the roles of academic, philanthropist and black-marketeer.  He makes some really rather good observations about the experience of being in Bucharest.  He has two Romanian girlfriends:  a bad one (Cilea) and then a good one (Ottilia).  He observes, but does not really take part in, some very Graham Greene plotlines about escapes that aren’t and a new regime to replace Ceausescu that isn’t really new, more the people that would have been squabbling over the succession anyway.

I didn’t find the book satisfactory, for a number of reasons.  The narrator is meant to be your working-class rebel and dropout, even jailbird, but he comes on very like a middle-aged professor of French.  On the one hand, the tells us what it was like instead of showing us how he came to realise it was like that, and on the other we have learned comments concerning Flaubert, Cuvier, mise-en-abime.  There is no sense of lived experience in the way that a young man going abroad for the first time would feel things, and indeed might even notice something about the face and body of his good girlfriend.

The good girlfriend Ottilia gave me the most problems.  She starts off presumably as an obstetrician when O’Heix’s secretary Rodica miscarries, and also refuses a bribe, an act of psychotic aberration in the circumstances.  We learn that she was at school with another character ten years ago, so she’s probably about 28.  She transforms herself into a surgeon to perform a miraculous operation on Leo when required.  At the end, she is able to pretend to be a Russian in both Russian and broken Romanian in attempting to get out of the country.  Such heroines may well be perfectly common in Romania, but if she sees anything in our hero the 21-year-old chancer (we learn that he’s two years younger than her step-brother Petre), then we need to be told what it is.

Then there’s the really quite well done backstory of the narrator’s difficult childhood with a brutal printworker for a father and a brutalised mother.  That’s a lot of print to prepare a throwaway remark about how he was one of the very few foreigners prepared for life in Ceausescu’s Romania…

I think a lot of the problem here is McGuinness’s attempt to both use and distance himself from his own experience.  His actual father worked for the British Council in Bucharest, which meant he met lots of interesting people and attended official gatherings (and got given a job teaching English).  What he clearly wanted to do was to write the typical poet’s book where a passive character wanders around witnessing and feeling, but then he also decided he needed to include his realistic experiences and a thriller plot and some lectures as well…

At one stage the bad girlfriend calls the narrator A gap-year deprivation tourist, which really only applies to the actual McGuinness, not his creation.

There’s a Romanian (newspaper) interview with Patrick McGuinness here, and I don’t think the commenters at the bottom are very pleased with him. You can get a Google translation here.

I was interested to see that he actually produced some poems to go with the novel (the way that Pasternak puts the ‘Poems of Yuri Zhivago’ at the end of Dr Zhivago) and then took them out.

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