End of a regime – Patrick McGuinness: The Last Hundred Days

I was waxing nostalgically about the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Wall and the end of Communism, and someone suggested this book by Patrick McGuiness. I’d somehow never heard of it before (perhaps because I was moving to France when it was published in 2011 and missed the fact that it was longlisted for the Booker Prize). Naturally, I was intrigued to see how an outsider would bear witness to such a tumultuous period in my country’s history (as well as my personal history). It was a quick read and brought up many memories (both good and bad), but I have very mixed feelings about it.

We have to bear in mind that it is a novel rather than a memoir, so of course the dramatic incidents have been heightened to make things more exciting. For anyone familiar with the Romanian personalities of the time, certain names and anecdotes will resonate. Some have got paper-thin disguises: the shameless opportunistic poet Adrian Paunescu becomes Adrian Palinescu, the first post-1989 president Ion Iliescu becomes Ilinescu. There are other characters who seem to be modelled on historical figures: Sergiu Trofim the sly old fox and manipulator is a perfect shoo-in for the real-life Silviu Brucan; the slippery Manea Constantin with his endless capacity to walk across borders and his secret links to both domestic and international espionage is probably based on the first post-revolutionary Romanian Secret Services Virgil Măgureanu (who had a celebrity daughter, although she looks nothing like the Cilea character in the book).

Most English-speaking readers, however, will be more interested in the storyline rather than in spotting historical figures. The plot is probably semi-autobiographical sprinkled with a lot of wishful thinking: a callow English student eager to get away from his home and memories of his family tumbles almost accidentally into a teaching position at the University of Bucharest in spring 1989, although he hasn’t quite graduated yet. He stares wide-eyed at the topsy-turvy world and the greedy, selfish but also desperate people he encounters, but then stretches the limits of our disbelief by positioning himself at the heart of a tangled web of black marketeering, people smuggling, dissidents and secret police posing as dissidents, party faithfuls and their families.

Suddenly, we are expected to believe that this rather uninteresting young man (with a colour-by-numbers back story) moves suavely among the many complicated layers of a paranoid regime in its death throes, a society he doesn’t really understand and in a language he doesn’t speak at all. The very Westernised and Cilea Constantin, the enigmatic daughter of a party bigshot, has an on/off affair with him. I might just about buy that, because maybe someone with her privileged upbringing felt herself to be above the laws of the country, although the descriptions of her dark, tanned skin and ‘her mix of carnality and untouchability’ smacks of Orientalism to me. But when another Romanian female doctor moves in with our young lad later on, and when you read that his profiteering British colleague and mentor Leo also has a Romanian girlfriend living in his flat, although neither of them are much to look at, you start to see it as a far too common male fantasy. All women throw themselves at you, the powerful Western saviour, when you are visiting countries that you consider poor and less developed.

I’m not denying that there were both men and women desperate to leave Romania at the time, and who might have got entangled with foreigners hoping that they would be swept off their feet and safely deposited in a Western democracy. However, unless you were working for the Securitate (secret police), relationships with foreigners were not only discouraged but punishable with imprisonment. Of course, humans being humans, these relationships did happen, but in secret. One of the reasons the Romanian orphanages were full of racially mixed children is because they were an obvious proof of having done something illegal. I don’t think anyone would have sacrificed their future for a 21 year old loser, who describes himself as:

… I was a passer-by; or, more exactly, a passer-through. Things happened around me, over me, even across me, but never to me. Even when I was there, in the thick of it, during those last hundred days.

It is this breezy ‘passing-through’ mentality that bothered me as I read the book, although he is perhaps not even the worst offender in its pages. The diplomatic personnel he describes seem to care even less about the common Romanian people than he does, they are merely eager to report back about any unrest and get their OBE. Yet I have to admit that the author’s descriptions, the incidents and the characters he encounters, seem to dial up the horror, but not actually get beyond the facade. His colleague Leo, who has been able to negotiate any loopholes in the system, claims to have found happiness there:

It’s all here, passion, intimacy, human fellowship. You just need to adapt to the circumstances… it’s a bit of a grey area to be honest.

But we never really get to see that passion, to see any of the good bits or the moments of happiness that Romanians managed to create amidst the sea of repression. [Incidentally, this is the aspect of their lives that East Germans tried and tried to explain to their Western brothers. To no avail.] Most of the scenes he describes feel more like hearsay, as if he has been collecting other people’s stories. It takes an awfully long time to get to the actual uprising in December 1989 and when it does come, what could have potentially been the most interesting aspect of the book is hastily dispatched in just a few pages. Perhaps because the narrator watched Ceausescu’s fatal speech on the 22nd of December on TV rather than in person, and stayed well away from the streets during the protest that followed, finally fleeing to Yugoslavia.

This is how I remember that day, photo credit Agerpres.

The book is at its best when we hear less about the expat and more about the Romanians he has conversations with. I suspect the author had some leftist sympathies himself, and although he saw the horrors of a full-blown socialist republic, he also questions capitalist aspirations. Below is a young musician, Petre, talking; he still has some faith in Communism, although not with the way it is implemented:

‘I have known freedom in my life. I live in a place that is not free, but I have made freedoms that have gone deep. Short freedoms, only moments here and there, but freedom… The mistake you make in the West is to think we are just victims, bowed heads… to think that we do not keep safe a part of our lives in which to be normal and happy… I know how you look at us because we are not free the way you are. But what are you free for? To buy things? To choose twenty different models of camera? To give your children six different brands of cereal for breakfast… Is that why my friends are leaving the country, risking their lives to cross borders to live in places where they can make a big choice about eating Cheerios or Coco Pops in the mornings?’

Aside from the fact that no one in Romania at the time could even believe that people ate nothing but cereal and milk for breakfast, let alone would have heard of specific brands of cereal, this passage and other similar ones sound like transcripts of interviews. I almost wish that McGuinness had given us more eyewitness accounts and memoir, like Svetlana Alexievich, instead of a half-hearted attempt to create a Mafia-like plot line which doesn’t satisfy either lovers of historical fiction or crime fiction aficionados.

Not quite sure who filmed this, probably undercover policemen, but there is a brief film of that day, with the university building in the background.

And I won’t even mention the small geographical discrepancies when the narrator seems to teleport from the town centre to a street 30 minutes away by simply turning a corner. I don’t want to be that pedantic friend! Yet, in spite of its flaws and exaggerations, I did enjoy parts of the book. If it takes an ‘Anglo’ to cast a bit of a light on my home country and its recent history, I’ll take it!

I’ll end with a quote that should give pause for thought to us here in the UK as we prepare for the election:

‘Ioana, it’s just some harmless crap poetry… only Nic and Elena believe that stuff… Most people just want to get along and reach the day’s end unscathed, not weigh up the moral rightness of everything they do and say…’

‘It’s the lies,’ Ioana said, more despondent than angry, ‘all the lies. They eat away at you until you believe nothing, you feel nothing. That’s what I’m saying – if everyone believed it, they’d be idiots, but they’d actually be believing. The part of themselves that believed would be there still, still getting used,but not dying away like this, dying into irony and cynicism.’

Full Moon on Monday and Writing Plans

The setting full moon over the Jura mountains got me singing ‘Full Moon on Monday’. Although, a while later, I realised that the Duran Duran song of my childhood was actually called ‘New Moon on Monday’. The lyrics are as vague and nonsensical as all Duran Duran lyrics ever were, but the video seems to suggest a revolution in the making, so this is my personal writing revolution, rather than a New Year’s resolution. I will be, as always, ruthlessly candid.FullMoon

  1. No one else is going to write my novel for me.
  2. Agents and publishers have a short attention span and will not wait for me forever.
  3. In fact, it may already be too late for 2.
  4. But that is no excuse to lay down arms.
  5. The next few months may be my last chance to focus with anything resembling single-mindedness on writing.
  6. Yes, there are still major logistical hurdles before me (moving house and country, changing schools, job hunting), but I will worry about those nearer the time.
  7. So what if everyone and their dog are writing ‘domestic noir’ and I am getting bored with the genre? That doesn’t mean I should lose confidence in my own project. If I don’t believe it offers something fresh and unique, then who else is going to believe it? Besides, it’s more of a gangster and police chase novel than a pure domestic.
  8. Volunteering for all sorts of writing-related responsibilities and tasks may be fun, but do they help me to finish the novel? If the answer is no, then I need to be ruthless about turning down these requests.
  9. I will still read and review crime fiction – it helps to know what is currently being published – but I should also read more widely and critically, with particular emphasis on the writers that I can learn from. Not to copy them, of course, but to understand the mechanics rather than just be wowed by the style.
  10. I also want to read for fun, without reviewing, without pen in hand, according to whim and fancy. Because life is too short to be earnest all the time.
  11. And on that note, always have something to look forward to and something to celebrate. That is my remedy for depression. Yes, there are all the other possible solutions as well: medication or talking to someone, exercising more regularly, using my daylight-simulating lamp or just going out more above the cloud level, exploring the settings for my novel… Add to that things such as a writing conference in March, the crime festival in Lyon on 1-3 April, and a writing retreat in June, and you can see that 2016 will be all about drive but also treats!
  12. If I don’t take care of myself, no one else will, and I won’t be able to take care of others. Yet I must also allow those others to take more care of themselves, without agonising too much about what kind of a parent I am.
  13. Don’t think diet, think lifestyle change. I intend to write more than one novel, so I need to form lifelong habits.
  14. Stop caring what other people say about my decisions and my life. No one knows what pain feels like for other people, no one can live my life for me.
  15. And no one can write my life for me either. Or my novel. Or my poems.

25 Years Since

A bit of erasure poetry for you tonight (well, more prose than poetry), which I’m linking to that wonderfully welcoming venue for sharing poems and ideas, the dVerse Poets Pub.

It’s almost exactly 25 years since our revolution in Romania. For many years I called it a ‘stolen’ or ‘so-called’ revolution, as we saw people tarnished by their Communist and security forces links become the most vocal proponents of the free market (and profiting hugely by it). But, no matter what followed, that doesn’t diminish the magic and hope of those few days when we really believed we could change the world. I found my diary from that time and have chosen a few lines from here and there to give you a feel for the atmosphere.

 

21decembrie.wordpress.com
21decembrie.wordpress.com

Dad was called in to the office on Sunday evening.

‘Don’t send any Christmas cards abroad just now.’

Helicopters flying overhead.

In Timişoara, rubber cudgels. Bullets too, so we hear.

We’re all hoping for more.

‘No public gatherings, curfew at 8 p.m., keep your ID card with you at all times.’

The school is strangely empty, profs barricaded in the Dean’s office.

Nearly holidays but no tickets:  trains have been cancelled.

‘Those imperialistic and fascist forces trying to destabilise our fatherland.’

They’ve smashed bookshop windows and burnt Ceauşescu’s books.

They dared the army to shoot:

‘We are the people, who are you protecting?’

Asociatia21decembrie.ro
Asociatia21decembrie.ro

Rumours, rumours everywhere.

This morning he calls a public meeting, shown live on TV,

with slogan-filled banners, portraits of the Beloved Couple.

I’m on my knees, praying for something to happen.

Suddenly, someone interrupted – I heard, I heard the boos!

Utter befuddlement on his face:

‘You mean, they really don’t like me?’

Transmission cut for a few endless minutes.

radardemediaMy parents begged me not to leave the house.

‘All students should resign their party membership:

a party that can kill its own people has lost all credibility.’

Tanks rolled up, shooting continued into the night, dogs barking wildly.

No heroics, more like running, finding shelter.

Smashing glass with your bare head.

Radio switched on every few minutes.

What were we expecting?

All we heard were patriotic songs.

Fotomagazin.ro
Fotomagazin.ro

Then at 12:55 p.m. the music stopped:

‘This is Radio Free Bucharest. We have an important announcement to make.’

Appeals to go out to help, provide medical aid, electricity, food.

It feels like civil war.

I went to a hospital to offer my first-aid skills but they only took the gauze.

We want to hug. We need to run.

Trucks loaded with people, unarmed yet willing.

A joy to see how well-behaved and selfless people are,

even if enemies and sharpshooters lurk atop buildings.

In the breaks between the shooting, we help

provide free drinks.

Companionship of perfect strangers.

I drop the cherries in my pie, keeping time with the machine-guns.

This morning our block of flats was shot at:

it’s Christmas Eve.

From Cartim.ro
From Cartim.ro

 

 

 

 

 

Modern German Classic: The Mussel Feast

MusselFeastWritten just before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this book by Birgit Vanderbeke is both domestic and allegorical, examining how all revolutions start with one small act of insubordination.

The story is deceptively simple. A brother and sister and their mother are waiting for the head of the family to show up for supper.  They are having mussels, a food none of them like very much, but which is their father’s favourite meal.  It is a special occasion, they tell each other, father is having a business meeting which may well end in a promotion. As they sit and wait, we find out more and more about this apparently ordinary German family, about the parents’ escape from East Germany and the back-breaking menial jobs their mother had to endure in order to support their father’s studying.  The author does an excellent job of describing the public charm and private horror of an inflexible, tyrannical man, but she doesn’t spare the mother either.  From the daughter-narrator’s point of view, her mother has colluded with her oppressor, switching to ‘wifey mode’ to appease and soothe him.  Yet only a few pages further, we discover that the daughter herself likes to be thought of as ‘Daddy’s girl’ and takes sides with her father to mock the other two members of the family.  The dictator’s policy of divide and conquer seeps in gradually, poisoning everything in sight. The more we find out, the more we discover this is a family reigned by fear and despair.

Presented as an ongoing interior monologue (much of it in just one paragraph), the book is an easy read, partly because of its brevity, but also because of its subtle humour and contradictory statements.  Yet for anyone who has lived in a non-democratic society or in an abusive family, it is a painful read.  It works perfectly well on both levels, describing the gradual descent from praiseworthy public ideals  to subverted, selfish interpretations. Thus, the father’s vision of  ‘a proper family’ ends in constant criticism and disappointment that his flesh-and-blood children do not live up to his ideal. His desire to be ‘doing things together’ ends in him spoiling the atmosphere and blaming everyone else when things are not quite perfect.  And ‘investing in the children’s future’ becomes a pointless exercise involving an expensive stamp collection that no one is interested in.

Communism failed not because it didn’t have inspirational ideas, but because it refused to take into account human nature when putting them into practice.  Marriages and families fail because we cannot allow the others to be themselves.  A valuable lesson, presented in an intriguing way, with an ending that is stunning in its shocking simplicity.

I read this as part of my 2013 Translation Challenge and on that note, let me make one small aside. I was sharing this book and my delight that Peirene Press is making such work more available to an English-speaking audience with a group of aspiring or even published writers based here in the Geneva area. I bemoaned the fact that there have been few translations into English of world literature so far, and commented how pleased I was to see some new initiatives.

Their reaction surprised me a little.  OK, a lot!

They said that no wonder that German and French publishers translate so much literature from the UK and the US, because that’s where the best work is produced. (Never mind that they also translate from many other languages.) And that they themselves cannot be bothered to read literature from other countries, because the style is too different ‘from our own’.  Bear in mind that this is not a random group of expats, but keen readers and aspiring writers, who have been living in the local area for many years and usually speak the language very well.  The lack of curiosity and insularity perhaps explains why so little contemporary fiction is being translated into English.  It saddens me, because it feels like people are deliberately limiting their horizons, but what do you think?

English: The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989. Th...
English: The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989. The photo shows a part of a public photo documentation wall at Former Check Point Charlie, Berlin. The photo documentation is permanently placed in the public. Türkçe: Berlin Duvarı, 1989 sonbaharı (Photo credit: Wikipedia)