The Last Hundred Days is Patrick McGuinness’s first novel. Written from the perspective of an unnamed British narrator, it tells the story of the last hundred days of Ceausescu’s communist reign in Romania. Sinister and engrossing in equal measures, the book draws the reader into an odd, secretive world.
Patrick himself lived in Romania from 1985 to 1987. When I asked him if he closely identified his own self with the narrator, he replied in the affirmative. “But none of the really sexy and interesting bits are autobiographical,” he added.
Perhaps it is because he was there that he is able to write with such clear authority and painstaking attention to detail. The world described is one “whose brutality was matched only by its absurdity” and both of these components are fleshed out throughout the narrative.
Past traumas and grievances in the narrator’s own life are pitted expertly against the grim backdrop of Romanian communism. A difficult relationship with a cancer-ridden, tyrannical father reflects the dying days of Ceausescu’s oppressive regime. Vivid characters spring to life on the pages and add colour to the grey streets of Bucharest: There’s Leo, the dodgy black-marketeer; Trofim, the elderly and erudite Romanian gentleman; Cilea, the sensuous and mysterious daughter of a party apparatchik.
Romania is a recurring theme in Patrick’s writing. The last section of his 2010 volume of poetry, Jilted City, is a set of poems called “City of Lost Walks” by the fictional Romanian poet, Liviu Campanu. I ask why Romania is so important in his writing. He thinks for a moment and then says, “The world I knew there was unlike anything else I’d seen before. It was a pretty traumatic time for me, so I spent quite a lot of time ignoring it and trying to repress it. But 20 years later I sat down and wrote about it – and it came out as a novel.”
The Last Hundred Days has been published by Seren. Not only did it win the 2012 Wales Book of the Year Award, but it was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award (2011) and longlisted for The Man Booker Prize (2011).
Patrick is a professor of French and Comparative Literature at Oxford University. He divides his time between Oxford and his home in Caernarfon. He tells me, after a great deal of thought, that his favourite writer would probably have to be the poet Thom Gunn.