The Last Hundred Days is one of the more surprising contenders for the Man Booker Prize this year. Not on many people’s lips before the shortlist announcement, this debut novel by poet and Oxford literature professor Patrick McGuinness is now rubbing shoulders with the likes of Hollinghurst and Barnes.
The days of the title are the last of Communist Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausecu’s rule in 1989, as his hold over the nation first begins to be unpicked and then is wholly dismantled. Not the most snappily accessible of topics, but perhaps no less so than the tale of a boy on a lifeboat with a tiger (Life of Pi, Man Booker Prize-winner 2002) or the story of a disorientated Englishman in Port Said, as in Something to Answer For, the first winner in 1969.
This contender, published by indie Seren Books, follows a young English student, transplanted into Bucharest and the English department of its University after the death of both his parents, and into a job he never applied for. He is befriended by a series of characters – first falling in with rough and nostalgic Leo O’Heix, who lives partly in the past, giving tours of the city using pre-Communist maps and visiting spots where bars and sites would have been, then falling for slippery Cilea Constantin – beautiful and dangerous, in that classic 007 way.
The most haunting descriptions of the book are those of the President’s cavalcade emptying the streets, with ghost cavalcades, decoy identikits, bringing other sections of the city to a standstill at exactly the same moment. The descriptions are moments of total stillness in the book, and it’s spellbinding.
McGuinness has a way of putting doubleness – real deals and decoys – into the whole story, and it’s difficult to connect with the characters in the book, perhaps because no one in the book can ever quite be certain of each other. The reader becomes a kind of Securitate officer, putting the characters under surveillance.
The violence and suspicions of life under a dictator are in every flicker of the story, and the Bucharest McGuinness gives us is at once flashy and forgotten. He shows us red Porsches and contraband Parisian luxuries, but also decaying heiresses and hunted escapees. It isn’t a fast-paced book; the title puts a time-consciousness onto the narrative, and the tension bound up in the novel is purely sinister – you couldn’t cut it with a knife, but you can’t be sure it won’t cut you.