Nicolae Ceausescu: The Last Days of a Dictator

Patrick McGuinness’ first novel captures the atmosphere of Communist Romania in eloquent language and spot-on detail

Romania’s Nicolae Ceauşescu with GDR chief Erich Honecker | Photo: Romanian National Archives

Nicolae Ceauşescu and Erich Honecker

Romania’s Nicolae Ceauşescu with GDR chief Erich Honecker | Photo: Romanian National Archives

The Last Hundred Days, Patrick McGuinness’ engrossing debut novel, observes the final months of Romania’s Communist dictatorship through the eyes of a 21-year-old Englishman. In April 1989, eager to slough off the scars of a brutal family life and start afresh, the novel’s unnamed narrator accepts a teaching post in Bucharest. He arrives in Romania knowing nothing about the country, and although he presents himself as a naïve bystander, he quickly learns how easy it is to become compromised, and that almost everyone has two faces.

McGuinness, who lived in the Romanian capital on the eve of the revolution, knows well the irrationalities and perverse cruelties of life under Nicolae Ceauşescu. He witnessed firsthand the fear and apathy of the Romanian people, as well as the cannibalistic destruction of Bucharest, once known as the Paris of the East.

 

Deception, deprivation and fear

What’s more, he’s a poet, which shines through in his eloquent language, incisive metaphors and spot-on details that capture the absurdity and peril of those times. He masterfully conveys the menacing atmosphere of deception, deprivation, fear and torpor that characterised Ceauşescu’s Romania, where Kent cigarettes doubled as currency, all typewriters were officially registered to ease the identification of the sources of samizdat dissident writers, and a miscarriage was a “crime against the integrity of the Romanian family.” Surveillance was constant; no one was above suspicion. “It was surreal, or would have been if it wasn’t the only reality available.”

Installed in a huge apartment in a once-elegant 19th-century Bucharest neighborhood that has not yet fallen victim to the wrecker’s ball, the novel’s narrator gives little thought to the fact that his predecessor’s name, Belanger, is still on the door, his books are still on the shelves and his clothes are still in the closets. Belanger’s absence is one of the novel’s sneaky undertows.

An Irish colleague, Leo O’Heix, takes the young narrator under his wing. No mere backwater academic, Leo is a bon vivant, and a kingpin in Bucharest’s thriving black market. He whisks the newcomer to the city’s most exclusive restaurant, a throwback to more stylish times. “Pork, Jewish Style” is the house specialty – “a dish in which a whole continent’s unthinking anti-Semitism is summarised.”

Leo is also writing a guide to Bucharest’s past, The City of Lost Walks. Like Virgil leading Dante through the circles of Hell, he takes the narrator on phantasmagorical nighttime jaunts to the city’s forgotten corners, mentally superimposing a lost web of streets from decades-old maps over the empty expanses of Ceauşescu’s triumphalist boulevards.

The dictator’s rampant and capricious campaign to eradicate the past by tearing down Bucharest’s architectural heritage and replacing it with crushingly banal socialist monoliths reverberates throughout the novel. “Buildings were suddenly begun and then just as suddenly abandoned. It was done on a whim, but a whim with hundreds of cranes and diggers and bulldozers, tens of thousands of workers and tonnes of concrete to express itself… the whim to power Nietzsche would have called it.”

The narrator quickly takes to the privileged life of a foreigner, hobnobbing with diplomats and dating Cilea, the glamorous daughter of the deputy interior minister. He helps Trofim, a former Party leader, produce two versions of his memoirs, one for the censors, the other to be published abroad. An ardent defender of socialism with a Gorbachevian desire for liberalization while maintaining Party control, Trofim is a fundamentalist, not a dissident, and he’s also positioning himself for a comeback.

Manuscripts are not the only things smuggled out of the country. Petre, a young guitarist and free spirit, involves the narrator in an underground network helping people escape Romania. Petre himself is unwilling to abandon his country; he considers himself free because he chooses to stay. But he too has another side.

A new girlfriend, a doctor, shows the narrator the brutal realities of life for ordinary Romanians. Though he is not blind to the hypocrisy of the elites and the deprivations of the impoverished majority, he maintains a peculiar disengagement. “Cushioned from the reality of daily life even as I dipped into and out of it, it seemed the easiest thing to separate myself from what was around me.” But ultimately, it is impossible to remain detached and untainted.

 

Bucharest becomes its own ghost

News of the peaceful revolutions toppling Communist regimes across Eastern Europe seeps into Romania, but “each relaxation outside brought a new squeeze.” By December, the tension is palpable: “We had all begun to feel that these were terminal times in a Bucharest that was becoming both its own ghost and its own grave.”

On 19 December, the Romanian pot finally began to boil over, in the novel as in life. Protesters in Timişoara stormed Party headquarters and the police stood aside. “In that protracted moment of hesitation,” McGuinness writes, “the end of the regime came and installed itself.”  In the following days, Bucharest and other cities grew increasingly restive. The newly formed National Salvation Front publicly called on Ceauşescu to resign.

Ceauşescu himself remained deluded. In a rambling speech on 21 December, he spouted Communist clichés and offered pay raises and other sops to the masses. Romania’s Hero of Heroes, the Genius of the Carpathians, the Danube of Thought, suddenly seemed confused and weak. The next day he addressed a crowd expressly bused in to show support, but the throng quickly turned against him and began to rush toward him. Security guards hustled Ceauşescu and his wife away. It was the beginning of their final flight.

On Christmas Day, the Ceauşescus were hastily put on trial and found “guilty of a range of crimes, from starving their people to owning too many pairs of shoes.” Afterwards, they were summarily executed. Excerpts from the trial and images of their bullet-riddled corpses were broadcast around the world, leaving an indelible impression on those who saw them. It was a horrible moment, triggering a range of emotions from disgust and shame to Schadenfreude. 

Romania’s revolution reshuffled the players. Just as a professor might be a janitor under the dictatorship, now has-beens and criminals could rise to the top. The mysterious Belanger finally returns, a sinister harbinger of Romania’s post-Communist future. Or as Leo would put it, “new brothel, same old whores.”

The Last Hundred Days
by Patrick McGuinness 
Bloomsbury USA (2012)
pp. 384

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