Books about Romania in English No. 5: The Last Hundred Days, by Patrick McGuinness

There are so few English novels set in Bucharest that when we heard of the existence of this book we got rather excited. So excited in fact that we went to the UK shortly afterwards with ‘Buy that book’ top of the To Do list. In our excitement, however, we promptly forgot to buy it.

Amazon, as is depressingly often the case, had to come to the rescue.

Now, eagle-eyed readers would have spotted immediately which way this review is going to go, given the fact that we have dropped the ‘Great‘ from the title of this series.

Controversial? Almost certainly.

The author of The Last Hundred Days, Patrick McGuinness, is a professor of comparative literature at Oxford, and the novel was itself deemed good enough to make the Booker Prize Longlist. It’s had rave reviews from almost every critic who has read it (links are below).

We are also aware of the fact that this is a novel, not a history book, and that novels are fiction. To all intents and purposes McGuinness could have – in a novel – made Bucharest the capital of Papua New Guinea and made Nicolae Ceausescu the new pope. The limits of a novel are merely the limits of the imagination.

And yet, and yet, this is a historical novel. Most of the events it describes are very real (such as the Romanian Revolution), even if others (an earthquake big enough to cause major structural damage in the Autumn of 1989?) are not. It is – to use the author’s own words – Regime Change Fiction. So while some names have understandably been changed to protect the guilty (Silviu Brucan becomes Sergiu Trofim) and there is much telescoping of events (the Brasov protests of November 1987 are moved to Bucharest in September 1989), should we not expect the author to at least get the majority of his facts about his setting right?

For while many (who we assume are unfamiliar with Bucharest) have praised the novel for its vivid description of late 1980s Bucharest, to anyone even vaguely familiar with the city there is an error on almost every other page. The classic, Renault 12-shaped Dacia was rear-engined? Not that we know of. The Capsia? Its Capsa. Piata Republica? Piata Republicii, surely? Trams on Calea Victoriei? Not for decades (if ever). A car factory in Bucharest? Where was that then?

A more serious error is a discussion between the narrator and his wingman Leo which takes place after the (fictional) earthquake. Leo explains how the older buildings of the city have stood up well while those hastily, recently built blocks on the city’s outskirts are crumbling and ready to fall for a lack of steel reinforcing the concrete.

In reality of course, the opposite is true: no matter how shabby they may look, blocks in Bucharest built after 1977 (when there really was a major earthquake) are structurally sound, while those buildings in the city considered at greatest risk were all built before 1940.

As for the description of the actual days of the revolution itself, let’s just say that it’s patchy. At best.

Of course, none of this matters if you do not know Bucharest, and are only vaguely familiar with the events of 21-25 December 1989 – which is what fans of the novel will no doubt be telling us. And if we try really hard and ignore the errors and focus on the plot, it is a good enough read, a bit of a slow burner that becomes better the longer it goes on. So do read the book, and make up your own minds.

We on the other hand will simply go on thinking that McGuinness could have been a bit more thorough in his research. (We don’t like using the word lazy, so we won’t).

And do note that other novels (as opposed to history books and memoirs – and maybe a memoir is perhaps what McGuinness should have written?) on the subject are available (or would be, if they were not out of print).

If you want to read about how claustrophobic life in 1980s Romania could be, and about how duplicitous most people’s lives had to be in order to get by, then Refuges by Augustin Buzura is probably a better read. If you want to read about how ridiculous bureaucracy could be, and how capricious those who held power were, then try Malcolm Bradbury’s hilarious Rates of Exchange.

But then what do we know about novels?

Exactly, bugger all.

So try these other reviews for balance:

The Guardian
The Independent
The Spectator

  • Geronimo

    I thought it was a great book. There are some perfectly observations like his description of Ceasescu’s statues (and the trial). You’re right that there are inaccuracies and a lot of them would have been just as easy to get right as wrong, but it was a good story and I think it did capture something of the essence of the time which is not an easy task.

  • Phil

    I felt pretty much the same as the review (which I only re-read after the novel) – a decent read but for anyone who knows the city, spoiled by the basic mistakes which, as you say, are on almost every page. 1o minute walk from Aleea Alexandru to Lipscani via Herastrau? It seems that journeys through the city have all been manipulated to go via the Victory of Socialism Boulevard. These do not make a big differerence to the story but are rather annoying and frankly just look sloppy because they are not plot devices.

  • Daniel Willis

    Excellent review! I know nothing about The Revolution but even then TW plausibility of certain aspects are strained. I’ve really enjoye the book but it makes me want to go and research historical writings on the events a lot more.

    • Parmalat

      Mister, if you want to learn something about the cards which Romania had played during the course of time, I would suggest to start by reading the books of this man – Cristian Troncota, BEFORE ANY OTHER WORKS:

      http://ro.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cristian_Troncot%C4%83

      He was a colleague of my father’s and I had the honor to meet him personally. Unfortunately most of his works only come in Romanian as far as I know, but they will present to the reader some points of view which are not to be found in any other commercially available materials.

  • Paco

    I for one, am curious about the photo on the book’s cover. Any details inside, credits, date, etc?

    • Andrei Pandele is the photo credit, no other details. I think, however, it is Gorbachev’s motorcade on Calea Victoriei in 1987.

      • Paco

        Could be! I found an article about that visit: http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/1987-05-26/news/8702180242_1_romanian-communist-party-president-nicolai-ceausescu-gorbachev

        Such a good idea that newspapers put online old articles from the paper age, when internet was only a concept.

      • Parmalat

        I was 2 and a half years old back then and my grandfather took me to see Gorbaciov as he passed through Berceni and then on his way to the IMGB factory.

        And I remember (yeah I do) it was a beautiful sunny day, Bd. Metalurgiei (now Bd. Alexandru Obregia) was full of people and everyone was chanting “Ceausescu, Gorbaciov”. Of course I was chanting too, I loved Ceausescu with all my heart. And my grandfather lifted me up above the crowd so I could see Gorbaciov, but I didn’t know where to look and I only saw the cars in the motorcade.

        And after that I loved Gorbaciov too, I thought he was a friend of Ceausescu’s. Now I don’t love him anymore.

  • Radu

    Technically (with great emphasis on that) there were 2 car factories in Bucharest. Ford had an assembly line in the ’30s in Floreasca while Malaxa Industries (later Uzinele Faur) tried to make a car so I suppose if you insist that could count as a car factory.

    • But neither was making cars in 1989… no?

      • Radu

        No, absolutely not 🙂 then again I’m pretty sure Rocar and Semanatoarea were still in production so if you wanna count buses and combine harvesters as cars that dude is right. :))

      • Parmalat

        Uzinele Autobuzul (renamed Rocar during the 90s) were making the “TV” vans which were used by all public services, including Militie and Securitate.

        http://www.automobileromanesti.ro/images/mari/Rocar/tv_14f-3.jpg