This year is definitely one for first person narratives and we also have a few “historical fiction” novels thrown in to boot. “The Last Hundred Days” kicks off in 1989 with our 21 year old narrator burying his father and flying out to take a posting at a Romanian University, a role achieved without a job interview! Bucharest during the last hundred days of Ceausescu’s reign, a city where everybody watches each other, a place where cigarettes gets you through customs or favours at hospitals, where the old churches and culture are being destroyed to make way for faceless concrete monoliths. I must admit that I knew little of Ceausescu’s reign and the 80’s period in Romania so for me this was a learning journey as well as a literary one.
Besides our narrator, the main protagonist here is Leo, a fellow “employee” of the University, a black marketeer, a drunk and passionate about the “old” Bucharest, it’s culture, town planning, antiques and artefacts. We have dissidents, house arrests, dodgy members of cabinet, seductive mystery women, characters plotting their future in a “new world” and more. This is a book with numerous sub-plots throughout – and some do go missing for 100 pages or so, suddenly to reappear as though the reader can quickly switch on to a long lost thread.
Very early on I was reminded of Kafka, the claustrophobia and the futility of inane actions, and lo and behold McGuinness brings him up. This is a fabulously well written book, with numerous passages that could be quoted, each chapter broken into small 1-2 pages sections and every one of them brings the story to life. However as the novel progressed I became more and more frustrated by the flat linear style and the fact that, in real life, events don’t occur in a neat sequential order ignorant of other simultaneous events.
Although fiction I did also feel as though I was reading an historical recollection, or diarised memories, of events and, again, this did frustrate me a little, as well and the political justification and debate that occurs (although I should add it is not significantly biased to the left nor right, but obviously very critical of Ceausescu’s rule).
It is hard to criticize a book that is so neatly and precisely written, however the soul, unique voice or passion of the narrator was lost on me. Probably not a short list contender, so I’m not disappointed that it didn’t make the final six, but a book worth reading, even if you’re only reading it to understand the political environment in Romania in the last 1980’s. Personally I believe this is a lot better picture of the Eastern bloc, than Miller’s “Snowdrops” – and I do promise, one day I’ll let the rage of that book making the short list go!!!