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The Last Hundred Days: A Novel by Patrick…
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The Last Hundred Days: A Novel (original 2011; edition 2012)

by Patrick McGuinness

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147None83,209 (3.69)1 / 37
Member:bergs47
Title:The Last Hundred Days: A Novel
Authors:Patrick McGuinness
Info:Bloomsbury USA (2012), Edition: 1, Paperback, 384 pages
Collections:Read but unowned
Rating:***1/2
Tags:Romania, Bucharest, Communism, 2013, Booker, English Diplomat, Corruption, Ceauşescu

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The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness (2011)

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The Last Hundred Days are those of Ceausescu’s Romania. The real historical events leading up to the Romanian Revolution are a scaffold for the fictional narrative. The story is told from the vantage of an expat Brit who was just looking to get a job and it happened to land him there during the last few months of the regime in 1989. The author, Patrick McGuinness, lived in Romania at the time and so would seem to have an insider’s authentic impressions. He is also a poet and writer, and professor of literature at Oxford, and it is his wonderful prose that elevates this novel.
“As a power-saving measure, museum visitors were organised into groups and the lights in each room were turned on as you entered and off as you left,…It was like a tide of darkness following you, engulfing room after room behind you as you went.”
“Trofim greeted everyone as if he had heard of them before, as if they came to him cresting the wave of a happy reputation.”
“This is what surveillance does: we stop being ourselves, and begin living alongside ourselves. Human nature cannot be changed, but it can be brought to a degree of self-consciousness that denatures it.”


The book was longlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2011, and I was struck by the similarities it shared with another Booker nominee that year, [b:Snowdrops|9579671|Snowdrops|A.D. Miller|http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51ry5kYo41L._SL75_.jpg|14466568] by [a:A.D. Miller|1158347|A.D. Miller|http://www.goodreads.com/images/nophoto/nophoto-M-50x66.jpg] (which unaccountably made the leap to the short list). Both books could be described by the same paragraph: An English expat ends up in (Romania, Russia), not entirely of his own volition but wants to make the best of it and make a good impression. He falls for an extraordinarily but mysterious beautiful woman, who may, or may not, be what she seems. Could she be a double agent? The characters in his life are pragmatic idealists, or are they?, and he learns quickly that life in (Romania, Russia) is definitely not what it appears to be on the surface. Corruption, hypocrisy and violence are the currency of (Romania, Russia). Despite the hardships and privations, extraordinary by British standards, he begins to feel part of his new home country. But even that might not be enough to withstand the extreme turmoil that is about to happen.

I think this is the kind of book to which [b:Snowdrops|9579671|Snowdrops|A.D. Miller|http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51ry5kYo41L._SL75_.jpg|14466568] was, in vain, aspiring to be. I even idly wondered if the Booker judges actually meant this book to be the shortlisted one, but got tripped up by a series of clerical bunglings (Dame Sheila imperiously waves to the underling clerk and says, “put this book about the Brit duck-out-of-water in a communist country on the short list; it will add a bit of variety.” )
There are a rich assortment of characters, reminiscent of the cast of Casablanca, and some of the descriptions are funny. “Their parties, an endless round of cocktails and booze-ups,…the circuit as a whole is…’a doppelgangbang: where largely identical people fuck each other interchangeably’” His beautiful girlfriend is dismissed by a cynical friend as “Ah, Cliea — a girl of many layers; layer upon layer of surface…”

This book gives us illuminating glimpses into the deep darknesses of humans, and we see ourselves.
“For all the grotesqueness and brutality, it was normality that defined our relations: the human capacity to accommodate ourselves to our conditions, not the duplicity and corruption that underpinned them. This was also our greatest drawback — the routinisation of want, sorrow, repression, until they became invisible, until they numbed you even to atrocity.” (Of course, we like to think of ourselves as the more noble and heroic characters in the book, not the venal corrupt ones that are more akin to our least favourite acquaintances.) “…The system was breaking down into its constituent parts, paranoia and apathy, and as the centre started to give way the two were left to engage in their great, blurred, inconclusive Manichean struggle. Apathy and paranoia: two drunks fighting slowly around a park bench.” ( )
  BCbookjunky | Mar 31, 2013 |
This is an interesting semi- autobiographical novel set during the last few months of Ceausescu's rule in Romania in 1989 (though it covers eight or nine months, not the three and a bit months the title implies). The author was present at that time and it shows in the very evocative descriptions by the unnamed narrator of the texture of life in Bucharest at this time, the stifling oppression, privations and utter absurdities of Ceausescu's highly personalised rule. It includes some interesting debates on the nature of freedom and the compromises that every Romanian had to make to survive on a day to day basis. Indeed, so much so, that one wonders why the author chose to write this as a novel, with real life characters under disguised names, rather than openly writing a memoir. It is a bit of a slow burn. The first third or so is quite slow moving but it picks up pace. A good read for anyone interested in modern European history or in the modes of thought and action of modern dictators. 4/5 ( )
  john257hopper | Mar 10, 2013 |
Long-listed for the Man-Booker - Can't think why, it should have won! A Beautifully written political thriller set in the dying days of Ceausescu's Romania, occasionally very funny but ultimately profoundly moving.
  tonythebook | Sep 12, 2012 |
I struggled through the first thirty pages, then gradually warmed to it - if warmed is the right word for a book that feels quite cold, bleak and grey - before deciding around about page 143 that I simply did not want to carry on. Fortunately for me, escaping from the tyranny associated with Eastern Europe during the Cold War was simply a case of putting down a book. The author may have been so effective at conveying the complete lack of trust that pervaded Ceausescu's Romania that I ended up not trusting any of the characters, the English narrator included, and hence not caring enough for any of them to want to follow their story to the end. ( )
  dsc73277 | Mar 3, 2012 |
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.

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.

(More useful version with formating and links at http://wp.me/pBfTB-Qm) ( )
  priamel | Feb 22, 2012 |
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For Sarah, who was there
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In 1980s Romania, boredom was a state of extremity.
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The socialist state is in crisis, the shops are empty, and old Bucharest vanishes daily under the onslaught of Ceaucescu's demolition gangs. The author creates an absorbing sense of time and place as the city struggles to survive this intense moment of history.… (more)

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