Problem with reviewing a book is that you have to read the damn thing before writing your opinion of it, easy enough if you’re a speed reader but I read too slowly and by the time I get to the end of a book my enthusiasm to share has often evaporated. This book about Romania took me ages to read.
Often I reach a moment of revelation early on in a book and think “this is the best book I have ever read…I must review it.” Nine times out of ten I don’t bother and recently a friend pointed out that I tend to get rather over-enthusiastic about the book I’m reading. The ancient Greeks used to say that enthusiasm was a disease and, if so, then I am a terminal case.
The book I’m reviewing here is called The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuiness and I went through the following stages with it: excitement at getting my hands on a copy (I had heard it was good, it has rave reviews and a great cover); pleasure at reading the superb writing and then disappointment as the story was completely out of synch with everything I know about Romania.
“Sinister, comic and lyrical,” blares a review from The Independent on the back cover: “it vividly captures the end of a long nightmare.” This is true: the book brilliantly describes the crushing boredom, pointlessness and bureaucracy of life in a dictatorship. The Times is quoted as saying “stunning” about the tome and the New York Times describe it as “observant, reflective, witty and precise.”
But the plot reveals the same sort of drift that is used so effectively to describe Romania under Communism: the story doesn’t really go anywhere. The descriptions are beautiful, the writing superb but when it comes to the characters it all falls apart as they are so unconvincing.
The main character is an English guy who gets a job teaching English in Bucharest in 1989 but never seems to do any teaching. It is set in the year of Romania’s great revolution and I was hoping the author would shed some light on an event which is still wrapped in mystery (no luck on that front: there are almost no political/historical insights and no suggestion of who ordered the shooting of the protesters in December 1989).
His students all speak fluent English and within a few chapters he is chatting in Romanian like a native. When I moved to Romania in 1990 very few people knew English – stimulating me to quickly learn Romanian – and those who did had none of the fluency this author gives them. His Romanian characters speak English as if they were educated in British schools, using cultural references that not even Americans would understand.
The plot is the development of his relationships with his colleagues and students and the revolution passes by as a confusing sideshow. He comes across as a geek but effortlessly seduces the best looking girl in the class, the daughter of one of the most formidable men in the country – the Minister of the Interior.
The Last Hundred Days is a novel but it breaks the main rule of good fiction: make the characters true to themselves. The author dabbles in the absurd and this is interesting as Romania under Communism was absurd in many ways and one of the world’s greatest absurdists was the Romanian-born playwright Eugen Ionescu. But Patrick McGuinness failed to carry me off into his land of make believe, although he succeeded with the London-based book critics.
The most interesting character is a teaching colleague called Leo. It’s not clear if this Leo is Romanian or English as he’s fluent in both cultures, but he’s attributed with a series of skills which are both fabulous and highly unlikely in Romania at that time. Leo’s day job is to teach English at Bucharest University but nobody in authority objects to the fact that he never shows up. He has an array of photographic and video equipment and unparalleled access to the embassies and foreign media – whom he supplies with images of the ongoing demolition of Bucharest’s ancient buildings. He’s also writing various books about the old city.
In my experience, both teaching English and writing a book are really energy-consuming activities and, with all his video-photography-secret-filming-spying work, I would have thought that this chap would have his hands full. But no, these activities are just his hobbies – Leo’s real function is to be the biggest black marketer in Bucharest.
This is my favourite passages in The Last Hundred Days:
“Leo’s business partner was known as ‘the lieutenant’: a tattooed, multiply earringed gypsy in riding britches and Cossack boots who revved his Yamaha Panther through the slums of Bucharest like an Iron Curtain Easy Rider. He wore a blue tunic with gold buttons and officer’s chevrons – hence his nickname – and resembled a veteran of some Mongol rape-and-pillage squad. The Lieutenant took care of logistics. He commanded an army of Poles and Romany caravaners who moved about in the night, across fields and mountains and urban wastelands, slid under razor wire and swept over electric fences, insubstantial as the dawn mist. They siphoned off petrol from the state service stations and disappeared equipment from the malfunctioning factories; they subtracted produce from the collectivised farms and re-routed flour and cooking oil from the night convoys. Inventories all over the country adjusted themselves to their passing.”
The most remarkable thing about Leo’s fairy-tale existence is that he has no problem with the dreaded Securitate, one of the most formidable secret services in the former Communist bloc. It makes for good reading and may be convincing to those who know little about life under Communism. The kind of corrupt activities that McGuinness describes certainly did go on under Ceausescu’s rule – and some say that the black market kept the people supplied with food – but it was monopolised by senior officials within the Communist Party and their illicit partners. One of the features of Communism is that petty crime got virtually eliminated and there is no way that such a big private enterprise like Leo’s would have been tolerated.
The Hundred Days reminds me of the most famous book ever to be set in Romania – Dracula – a book that was also written in England. Both books have some real merits, but Dracula is a much better novel in that the characters are convincing – even the bloodthirsty count who travels around in a coffin, can turn into a bat and lives forever.
This article was also published on Rupert Wolfe Murray’s new travel blog: www.wolfemurray.com