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.
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.
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.’