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.’

Lugging Books Home from Romania

I brought 14 books back from Romania (had to leave about 5 behind), which is not bad going for merely a week away and not too much time spent in bookshops. Here is a picture of what I managed to squeeze into my luggage. All of them are in Romanian, of course, and I don’t think any of them have been translated (yet).

So here’s a little more information about the book haul.

I brought back four books by Bogdan Teodorescu, a sociologist and journalist, who has been involved in political campaigning and opinion polls, but is above all a storyteller. He has published many novels of the noirish or political thriller variety, one of which, Spada, has been translated into French and has been well received there. I’m involved in a little conspiracy to bring more Romanian literature to the English-speaking world, and Bogdan Teodorescu is probably going to be one of our first authors, so I’m trying to make up my mind which book would be most suitable as a ‘starter for ten’. The books I have are: two political thrillers Spada and Nearly Good Boys, a domestic noir unlike any you’ll have read in recent years, Liberty, and his latest, We’ll All Perish in Pain, a story that is both thriller and social commentary, featuring an investor, a tourist and a refugee in a country not unlike present-day Romania.

I also got crime fiction by three more authors to investigate for possible future translation. Lucian Dragos Bogdan’s Spiderweb is a police procedural about people being killed off at a crime festival in the Romanian Carpathians. Daniel Timariu’s PI investigates crimes in a city that exists on two planes: the human world and the underworld, a bit like The City and the City by China Mieville. Rodica Ojog-Brasoveanu was a classic crime writer from before the fall of Communism.

Last but not least, I also got two books of crime stories: a collection of stories all set in Bucharest, Bucharest Noir, and a series of linked stories written by six different authors Domino 2.

In addition to all that crime fiction, I got some literary fiction: Mircea Cartarescu’s Solenoid, a massive tome of surrealist and semi-autobiographical writing. You can read an excellent detailed review of the book (in Spanish translation) on the much-missed The Untranslated blog. Since I am slightly obsessed with Mihail Sebastian, I bought a 630 page novel written by Gelu Diaconu about Sebastian’s life in the 1930s, which somehow has dual timeline with post-Communist 1990s Romania. The Innocents by Ioana Parvulescu is the history of a house in Brasov, the story of a young girl and a woman remembering the past, as well as the history of a country that has had way too much history to digest.

Last but not least, two non-fiction books. The same Ioana Parvulescu has published a book about everyday life in Bucharest between the two world wars, a period often viewed (probably mistakenly) as ‘golden’ in the history of Romania. The last one is even more interesting: the memoirs of Elena Ceausescu’s personal interpreter, Violeta Nastasescu, a rather lovely lady whom I met personally because she tested my English just before my university entrance exam.

Romanian Road Trip: Little House in the Forest

For those of you not interested in Romania or holiday pictures, look away now, as the following few posts will be all about my holiday there. I’ve had a fraught love-hate relationship with my home country all my life (more about the whys in a later post), but this time almost everything clicked to make it a magical experience. Two days of cold and snow (up in the mountains), but the rest of the time we had temperatures in the mid-20s, blue skies and ravishing autumn colours.

I’ll start with the place we stayed in last, as it was the most memorable. Lost in the fertile and beautiful landscapes of the sub-Carpathians in the centre-west of Romania, Pensiunea Dacica was like a place in fairy tale. We had to follow nearly 5 km of unpaved, narrow road alongside a stream, going deeper and deeper into the forest as night was falling. At first I thought the wolves would come to get us (we still have bears, wolves, wolverines, lynx and the like in our mountains), but when we arrived, we found all mod cons awaiting us: running water, heating, electricity, comfortable rooms, good food, lots of books and even Wifi.

View of the entire complex from the surrounding hills.

Not forgetting, of course, the array of friendly dogs, cats, donkeys and occasional stray cows to give you that authentic countryside experience.

Early morning visitor at my window.

The reason for this seeming miraculous retreat in the depth of the forest? This guesthouse is the brainchild of a team of archaeologists who have been working on the Dacian remains which are abundant in this part of the country. [The Dacians were the native population (related to the Getae and Thrakians of the Balkanic peninsula) before the conquest by the Romans in 105-106 AD, as witnessed in the carvings on Traian’s Column in Rome.] They established a publishing house and foundation for educating children and people more generally about history and traditional culture, not just the Dacians.

The library and conference room, complete with projector.
We played cards in the common room, but you could have a disco in here.

They have a library and study room, ideal for a historian or writer wishing to work in peace, a common room for socialising, plenty of outdoor spaces to settle down and read. And, of course, lots of mountain trails and archaeological sites nearby to explore. Sometimes the dogs and cats would accompany us to the top of the hill.

Our companions as we climbed up towards Dacian fortress Piatra Rosie (Red Stone).

I can’t forget the delicious food – with Ioana, the cook, fussing around my children to find out what they would like best for the evening meal and worrying if they didn’t finish off everything on their plate. In the morning, we had more than 20 jams to choose from, home made on site, including unusual varieties such as lilac flower, watermelon, peony petals and even carrot. In the evening, we could choose between home-made apple or plum brandy, mead or sour cherry liqueur. Everyone working there showed the legendary Romanian hospitality and kindness (which is sometimes more legendary than real in the bigger cities).

We only stayed there two days, but I could easily imagine myself staying there for a proper holiday or even a writing retreat for a month. It was quiet when we were there, as there’s no half-term holiday in Romania and so it was off-peak, but the few people who were there were regulars, who kept coming back every year. I am almost reluctant to share details of this little piece of paradise, as I don’t want it to become trampled by too many tourists.

You can also camp in the more basic chalets, but you have a kitchen and place to eat in the shade.

While there, we went to visit Sarmisegetuza Regia, the ancient capital of the Dacians. It is situated in a nature reserve and it’s the most peaceful, inspiring location, even if you don’t believe in ley lines and building for solstice sun positioning.

The Dacians put up a fierce fight against the Romans. Their last king, Decebal, waged three wars against the Romans, but was finally defeated in 106 AD. Together with a few of his generals, he retreated to the fortified capital tucked away in the mountains and they all committed suicide rather than allow themselves to be captured by the Romans and marched through Rome in chains. Traian had to content himself with only the head and right hand of the dead Decebal. The Romans razed the city to the ground and forbade any access to it, for fear of the growth of cults around the deceased leader or possible rebellions. So, rather like in Sleeping Beauty, the forest grew around it and it was forgotten for over 1500 years, until archaeological interest arose in the early 19th century.

The interpretation of the Dacian legacy since its rediscovery has been very interesting. At first, the Romanians chose to emphasise their civilised Roman ancestry, probably in an effort to underline their Latin origin in contrast to the Slavic populations surrounding them and also to show that they were equal to the Austro-Hungarian empire that one third of the country was part of. From the 1930s onwards, the Dacian roots and the proto-population theories were used for nationalistic purposes. The Dacians were presented as fearless and noble, yet never as aggressors. (The Greek cities on the Black Sea coast, the Boii, Bastarnae and Illyrian tribes might all disagree with that, as they were all conquered or driven out under the first Dacian king to unite all the territories, Burebista.)

Yet, despite the bloody past and biased interpretations, this feels like such a blessed and happy spot. You can imagine people contentedly pursuing their agricultural and animal-rearing occupations here. The stones on the ground all glitter enchantingly, since these hills used to contain gold. Gold treasure hordes have been found in the region as recently as 2014.

The Eastern Gate to the city

You could be forgiven for thinking that people can still live as happily as their ancestors in these spots, albeit with all the mod cons. Pensiunea Dacica certainly makes you believe that all is still well with the world. But you would be wrong. The whole area is under threat from big corporations for fracking, with the government happily issuing licences (so as not to be overly reliant on Russian oil and gas), despite protests by the local population. In an earthquake-prone country, that could be even more of a disaster than in England. And, although this particular area around Sarmisegetuza is a nature reserve, huge swathes of forests everywhere else have been privatised and are being sold off and chopped up for timber or building.

One of the surprising promoters of Romanian tourism with an authentic flair and trying to protect the Romanian ecology is Prince Charles, who has bought a fortified village called Viscri. His foundation has turned this into a guesthouse but he seems to be ploughing the profits of it back into the local communities, attempting to revive local arts and crafts, encouraging the renovation of old houses and using local produce for food. 

My two favourite cats of the many friends I made there.

 

Weekly Summary 15 Oct 2018

Earlier in the week I attended an event that wasn’t really meant for me: it was about how to get published as an early career academic or Ph.D. student in the field of comparative literature. My days in academia are long since over, but just occasionally I dream of writing the definitive work combining anthropology and literature from across the world. But the reason I attended this event was that I was curious to see if it was just as difficult to get published in this field as it is in the world of fiction. And one difference was immediately obvious: you get in touch directly with a publisher and write a book proposal with perhaps 1-2 sample chapters, rather than have to write the whole book and then find an agent. Getting published in academic journals, however, is much more difficult than publishing opinion pieces in various online or press publications, since you need to get peer reviewed.

I did not deliberately set out to buy books this week, but somehow a few of them did stalk me and end up on my doorstep…

I have fond memories of reading Murakami Haruki’s Norwegian Wood together with our professor at university back in the days when I studied Japanese. Since then, however, I’ve not always been equally impressed with his work. I loved Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I have a soft spot for The Wild Sheep Chase (because I am secretly obsessed by the island of Hokkaido). I was fascinated by Underground and What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, mainly because they follow my own interests. But I have felt no urge to read Colorless Tsukuru or Men Without Women or IQ84. So I guess you could say I am a fan of earlier Murakami (and of the ‘other’ Murakami – Ryuu). Still, I could not resist the beautiful, colourful edition of his latest Killing Commendatore, both because of its allusion to Mozart’s Don Giovanni and because the blurb sounds interesting.


 A thirty-something portrait painter in Tokyo is abandoned by his wife and finds himself holed up in the mountain home of a famous artist, Tomohiko Amada. When he discovers a strange painting in the attic, he unintentionally opens a circle of mysterious circumstances. To close it, he must complete a journey that involves a mysterious ringing bell, a two-foot-high physical manifestation of an Idea, a dapper businessman who lives across the valley, a precocious thirteen-year-old girl, a Nazi assassination attempt during World War II in Vienna, a pit in the woods behind the artist’s home, and an underworld haunted by Double Metaphors.

So I spent most of my Saturday wading through the lengthy book. Verdict? Overall, quite enjoyable, but far too long and self-indulgent in terms of descriptions and repetitions. I enjoyed the exploration of the artistic impulse in general and portrait painting in particular. It has been described as The Great Gatsby meets The Picture of Dorian Grey, but reminded me more of the folktales and ghost stories of Ueda Makinari, who is referenced in the book itself.

Following my evening at Canada House, I found a second-hand copy of A Door in the River by Inger Ash Wolfe (Michael Redhill’s pen name for crime fiction). I bought the coming-of-age novel about a wannabe writer That Summer Feeling by Mark Hodkinson after reading the author’s article about how the publishing industry needs a wake-up call and setting up an independent publishing house Pomona. So blogs and articles, reviews and Twitter recommendations definitely work in getting me interested in a book.

I was sent Margaret Millar’s Vanish in an Instant by Pushkin Vertigo to review on Crime Fiction Lover. I already have a good stack of Margaret Millar’s – she is one of the original and best when it comes to psychological thrillers and domestic noirs. Last but not least, I borrowed Fatou Diome’s novel about the female immigrant experience in France Celles qui attendent (Those Who Are Waiting) from the library. 

The highlight of the week, however, was the very rainy film-binging day at the London Film Festival on Sunday. I watched a Romanian and a Russian film.

Still from the Film ‘I Do Not Care If…’

The Romanian film directed by Radu Jude was ‘I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians’. An unwieldy title but very appropriate, as it was a quote given by the Romanian military leaders just before carrying out a massacre in Odessa in 1941. This is an uncomfortable part of Romanian history which has been swept under the carpet: in the early 
part of the Second World War, the Romanians were allies of the Germans on the Eastern front and there was plenty of anti-Semitic and Fascist rhetoric in the late 1930s in Romania. Rather cleverly, the film tells the story of the events obliquely, via a historical reenactment in the present-day, in which the young female director of the show Mariana tries to be as historically accurate as possible, and encounters severe objections at a personal and political level. Despite a slow start and scenes of gratuitous nudity, it was a great way to show how unwilling nations are at dealing with collective guilt and how easy it is to whip up nationalistic discourse, as well as a look at how difficult it can be for a young woman to be taken seriously in a macho society like Romania.

The second film, Russia’s Summer, was more nostalgic and fun: a look back at the rise of underground rock culture in early 1980s Russia before Glasnost. I’d never heard of Viktor Tsoi before, but my Russian friend who accompanied me to these films said that everyone remembered where they were the day they heard about his untimely death in a car crash in 1990. He was the Kurt Cobain or Jim Morrison of the Russians, and his lyrics grew increasingly political. The film was shot mainly in black and white, which gave it beauty and a fairy-tale quality in what was a rather shabby, poverty-stricken reality, and there were great Western pop references. Especially memorable: a punk protest scene on a train to the music of Talking Head’s Psychokiller but of course ‘none of this happened’.

Viktor Tsoi (played by Teo Yoo) and his friends on the beach.