Book Review: The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness

Book - The Last Hundred DaysSet in communist Romania, in 1989, The Last Hundred Days is a fascinating, vivid portrayal of the last months of the Ceauşescu regime. The absurdity of living in a city full of corruption, lies and paranoia is emphasised by the fact that the story is narrated by a young, nameless English student, an outsider who is adrift and immune, in a world full of danger and repression.   

Our nameless protagonist arrives in Bucharest, eager to escape Britain after the death of his parents, and only mildly suspicious at being offered a job without even having turned up for the interview. He immediately becomes firm friends with his colleague Leo (also British) who is a loveable black marketer, obsessed with recording and preserving the ‘old city’ before it is completely destroyed, hoarding antiques and searching out historical treasures in a kind of frenzy.

To begin with, the narrative seems to focus on the protagonist’s observations, revealing scene after scene of hypocrisy and hardship. Gradually, he becomes more involved, beginning a relationship with Celia (the daughter of a high-ranking official), and becoming friends with Trofim (an old communist who is writing his memoirs). This portion of the book feels quite long and, although it is packed full of incredible descriptions of the rapidly changing city, the plot seems to stall slightly around a third of the way through. It does, however, serve to demonstrate the “totalitarian boredom” of living in “a state of expectation already heavy with its own disappointment”.

Despite this, I relished reading the intricate, detailed accounts of a place ravished by the whims of political will:

“It was desolation: villages that had stood for centuries were bulldozed in a morning, to be replaced with high-rise blocks surrounded by scrubland or factory complexes that looked like abandoned galactic penal colonies. Romania was being turned into a huge, pastless no-place…”

The characters are powerfully real, dealing, each in their own way, with the lies and uncertainty around them. You can tell that the author has lived through this himself. In fact, it was interesting to hear him speak about the novel at the Cardiff Book Festival in October. He explained that living in Bucharest had “a powerful effect” on him, that the atmosphere was one of “psychological violence” where “no-one could tell the truth, they could only lie in a way that told you they were lying”. This definitely comes across in the book, along with a strong sense of irony. For example, May Day is described as “an excuse for a minutely planned display of spontaneous celebration” in which citizens are forced to parade about, creating a false show of conformity.

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Patrick McGuinness at Cardiff Book Festival

There is one line, in fact, that really sums up the absurdity of building friendships with people whilst also continually lying, even to those closest to you. The protagonist, as he gets used to this double-dealing, begins to develop a different way of understanding people: “He couldn’t be trusted. I was used to that. But was he untrustworthy in ways I could rely on?”

There is a sense of frustration and unease that runs throughout the novel. Even at the very beginning, there are hints that all is not as it may seem: the young man arrives to a fully stocked flat belonging to his predecessor, whom nobody will talk about, and soon learns to compartmentalise people and their actions:

“When Rodica… opened our offices for the police to search our things and copy our papers, or the landlady let them into my flat, I said nothing. I knew they knew I knew, and it changed nothing.”

In some ways, this book reminded me of Snowdrops by A.D.Miller, simply because both stories are narrated by a British male living in a communist country, experiencing first-hand the corruption and complexity of a system that is foreign to them. But The Last Hundred Days is written in an entirely different style, packed full of detailed passages which bring to life the surreal sense of unease and uncertainty. It is also far more intricate, depicting a world where humanity adapts under extreme circumstances and where, despite the constant lying and betrayal, people are still able to form functioning relationships.

The ending is inevitable, as the book is based on historical events, but it is both unnerving and thrilling to read about them from the perspective of someone who was there. As with many historical novels, it is difficult to separate the fiction from fact, but this makes it even more exciting to read, and the tension continues up until the final page.

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