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The plot centres on Romania in the last months of the Ceausescu regime. Its narrator, who by some mysterious mechanism has been employed by the University of Bucharest, is nameless – an oddly anonymous figure, like the second Mrs de Winter. Also like her, he is young, vulnerable, and much in the thrall of the larger than life events and people around him. The lack of a name means it is hard to place him, even his gender isn’t clear, although a few details about clothes suggest maleness. Also, his father expresses a homophobic sentiment about art and those who work in the arts which would probably not be levelled at a woman. He has an unhappy past and a need for a clean break after nursing this angry, unloving man through terminal cancer. His life so far has been so miserable that even Romania can’t make things worse for him. In 1989, it was one of the most desperate places in a fragmenting continent; for this young man at least, it’s as good as anywhere and better than many.
This quality of anonymity makes him an ideal vessel for the dysfunctional society in which he finds himself. Nothing in Romania works as he expects, everything confounds his previous experiences. Even the way he got the job is peculiar, as he did not attend the interview. The culture shock is profound; from the shortages of just about everything, to the queues – always an odd thing for British people to be surprised by – to the extremes of want and privilege in a society where such differences are supposedly verboten.
However, one of the most chilling effects of this novel is how much it echoes more recent events closer to home. People collaborate with authority, they compromise their beliefs and they sell out themselves and others, to survive and remain at liberty, even when the world closes in on them, and this reflects not merely the crumbling eastern bloc in 1989, but the west in the here and now. We are encouraged to believe that if we have nothing to hide, then we have nothing to fear, when the goalposts for both of those things are changed arbitrarily depending on circumstances and who you are. The gulf between rich and poor deepens and in some countries, it verges on the grotesque. Good people either compromise or they are buried, perhaps not literally, but in a trial by media that ensures they will be laughed off the stage. This is well expressed by the narrator’s senior colleague, the outrageously bibulous Leo o’ Heix, whose rebellion is shown in the way he plays the system. There is almost nothing Leo can’t get, one way or another for those who can pay. He has contacts all over the place and a willingness to take risks that the reader finds terrifying, admirable and entertaining all at once.
Leo is also one of the conduits by which the narrator finds himself more involved in the lives of those around him, and where the line between observer and participant begins to break down. He assists a colleague who suffers a miscarriage – a tragedy in most cultures – but in Ceausescu’s Romania, where the loss of a pregnancy is a crime (regardless of how it happens) it is a disaster. He begins to realise that the majority of Romanians have lives that are more than difficult. Albeit unwillingly, he becomes involved in underground activities. Perhaps most transgressive of all are his two love affairs with Romanian women. Romanians are encouraged to keep foreigners at a polite remove, at best, and the narrator is not a big player in the Bucharest expatriate community. Intimate contact with him is even riskier for the women, especially for Ottilla, a young doctor and the sister of a man with involvement in the Romanian resistance. However, it is his affair with this brave, conscientious woman which really teaches him about being human in a society where the very quality of humanity is under attack.
The nature of the humanity is precious, not because it is pure and uncompromised (it isn’t) but because it belongs to people rather than bureaucratic machines. One of the strongest characters in the book is Sergui Trofim, an intellectual and writer, who was lucky enough to escape the anti-Jewish purges of the 1940s and 50s. (Readers who don’t know much about the period may be shocked to learn how persistent anti-semitism was, even after the Holocaust.) He is a gentle, scholarly soul and the narrator comes to love him. However, he is as corrupt as they come and has used many of the weapons that have been turned on him. But the reader is encouraged to judge Trofim, not according to a standard of perfection he can never reach, but by his own lights. Has he contributed to the development of a better, kinder society or has he helped to bury it? Obversely, Manea Constantin, an urbane and powerful functionary and a man whose purpose in life is to serve those above him regardless of the cost, becomes more ambiguous as the narrative unfolds. In this, the narrator – and the reader – learn that ambiguity is what makes human beings human, rather than cut and dried definitions.
Something should be said about the documentary quality of the novel, as this is one of its strengths, and contributes to its suspense, not something we automatically associate with the factual documentary form. Most readers will have at least a vague idea of what happened in Romania in the last few weeks of 1989; the tension comes from finding out how a particular narrative pulls it off as well as from the writer’s skill in winding up our sense of foreboding and dread. McGuinness accomplishes this well in both respects by presenting events that continue to reverberate in our own time, and through characters who come off the page as real. This is topped off by a cover photograph by the Romanian photographer Andre Pandele. It is an aerial shot of Nicholae Ceausescu’s motorcade, showing the cars like coffins, surrounded by the insect forms of motorcycles as they move through the streets of Bucharest. It is, quite properly, chilling and eerie.
Seren/ Poetry Wales Press, Bridgend. 2011. ISBN: 978-1-85411-561-4. 356pp in paperback.