An Oxford don and poet, Patrick McGuinness lived in Bucharest in 1989, and in this fictionalised account of the regime’s death throes he puts his first-hand experience to compelling use.
An Oxford don and poet, Patrick McGuinness lived in Bucharest in 1989, and in this fictionalised account of the regime’s death throes he puts his first-hand experience to compelling use. So compelling, in fact, that at times one feels he can’t bear to leave anything out, and the plot is accordingly tweaked. But even if there’s the odd creak, this first and Booker-longlisted novel is a wonderfully good read, giving one a convincing taste of how it might be to live under the most surreal kind of communist rule.
Ceausescu’s Romania was the land of doublespeak. The story opens when the unnamed narrator, an English student, takes a job at Bucharest’s university on the basis of an interview that never took place. Bewildered, he is shown the ropes by his colleague Leo, who supplies so many party officials with smuggled luxury goods that he can afford to be outspoken. Leo becomes our student’s Mephistopheles-like guide.
The city has a visceral presence, clotted as it is with cranes, dust, diggers, unfinished and hastily erected new buildings (Ceausescu’s ‘modernisation’ project). When the university secretary miscarries, Leo and our narrator frantically look for her, but the hospital she’s in is too new to be on the map. They do find her. This people’s hospital resembles an abbatoir, with trails of blood along the sign-free corridors (party officials go to a hi-tech medical clinic with frosted glass windows).
It’s a divided dystopia. Shop items are displayed on concrete slabs — a few green peppers ‘like withered old socks’, some gnarled carrots; officials — and of course Leo — go to Capsia, where there’s blackmarket champagne.
The narrator has an affair with glamorous Cilea, daughter of a party official; helps elderly Trofim complete his memoirs in private (the official version is eviscerated by censors); facilitates underground student escapes. Or so he thinks. At the same time Leo is writing a book titled City of Lost Walks, to document the vanishing buildings — in eight years a quarter of the old city has gone.
The prose is often workaday-thriller (‘I slept late and woke in sunlight so hot the blood bubbled inside my eyelids’), some of the characters generic. But McGuinness has reacted to the city with a kind of poetic intensity, and his fictional world expresses this. As the buildings are demolished and the city’s character erased, so identities come to seem transient and interchangeable. Surveillance and corruption are so pervasive that the currency of human relations is degraded, the possibility of innocence limited. And the story at the heart of this thriller is our narrator’s descent into experience, as he realises that everybody who’s befriended him has had some motive of which he was unaware.
In this twilit world every action has a moral dimension: the story acquires allegorical depth, and here McGuinness raises his game as a novelist. In Leo, kind, sarcastic, innocent-corrupt, he’s conceived of a character who transcends cliché. Leo plays the system, wheels and deals, is greedy and drunk — and he saves his friends.