Books · Political

Uses of totalitarianism

The Last Hundred DaysThe Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

2.5 stars

The nameless narrator of this faux-memoir seems to fall from the sky into the last days of the Ceausescu regime and the massive gravitational field of the enigmatic Leo O’Heix, oafish, corrupt, generous bon viveur, embodiment of decadent bourgeois capitalism. This story is his, but as he is The Magician (surely this is one of the six/nine/twelve basic plots?) he needs to be observed in preternatural action and not endowed with psychology.

Like the narrator, Leo has no past. More accurately, they both have painful pasts which do not figure in the story at all; the unwanted histories they have jettisoned tip them into the urgency of the present moment unencumbered. Similarly, the regime (the other protagonist) arrives divested of historical context. In the opening paragraphs, McGuiness effortlessly evokes the grey grinding misery of life in Bucharest with an evocative description of ‘totalitarian boredom’ and acute collocations like ‘malign lethargy’. You can tell he’s a poet. This tone-setting done, he spends few words on the suffering of the proletariat, instead focussing on the grotesque luxuries enjoyed by the tiers of the privileged: foreigners diplomats, party members and their families.

McGuiness, again effortlessly, scandalises this reproduction of privilege that features so offensively in non-fictional manifestations of communism. I think of Barbara Demmick’s book
Nothing to Envy
. But while Demmick tells the real stories of ordinary people, presenting an incontrovertible indictment of the North Korean regime, McGuiness appropriates his chosen context for a narrative of heroic individualism, in the personality of Leon and his milieu, in which activism and community are envisioned as haphazard acts of interested philanthropy. Oh no! Am I making the foolish mistake of approaching The Last Hundred Days ideologically? Alas, I am.

OK, my position. I’ve never studied politics. I currently have many of my political conversations with a Romanian entrepreneur who grew up in the abject misery of the socialist regime. I’m not a communist: I believe the state is violence, reject the concept of the nation state, and refuse to oblige anyone to suffer for ‘justice’ (this gets tricky but I’m dealing). You can call me anarcha-feminist in training. Practically, and for the purposes of relaxed dinner-party conversation, I will agree that mixed economies work: most people can more or less muggle along in a society where the state works for the common good by providing some stuff like healthcare, regulates the excesses of capitalist greed, and refrains from trying to plan & control everything.

Where was I? I see reviews by Romanians saying this book is accurate, and others saying it is inaccurate, and other non-Romanian reviewers saying it doesn’t matter because it’s fiction. In my opinion, it does matter: I think it’s irresponsible to write inaccurate historical fiction about highly political subjects. But it matters less to me that McGuiness might have misrepresented aspects of the historical context than that he has rather transparently used that context to mount a refutation of the ideas behind socialism.

Of course, the highly visible failure of communism is its own critique! One hardly need do any work, but McGuiness happily goes out of his way, not contenting himself with regularly (and haha yes rightly in my view) ridiculing historicism in author voice: “You know the old joke: with communism the future is certain, it’s just the past that keeps changing” he creates two characters, Petre and Trofim, who rebel against the regime but defend socialist ideals, and has them articulate their positions in order to dismiss them. Petre’s argument is bookended with derisive assertions of its wrongness, and is presented so weakly I want to call it a straw man, while Trofim’s, though stilted, is more convincing:

Do you think that you who live in capitalist countries would believe in the right to a job, a decent wage, free health and education if socialism had not shown you the way? The welfare state? The National Health Service? Socialism showed you that what your employers and bosses sometimes gave you out of paternalism or pangs of social conscience was in fact life’s necessities, the minimum. You only think of them as rights because of socialism. Until socialism they were merely privileges or random acts of charity or luck. And that is before I talk of social mobility… Capitalism owes its better self to us’

McGuiness is having none of this. His narrator brushes the ‘outburst of idealism’ aside and a couple of paragraphs later recharacterises it as ‘fundamentalist’ and then has hero Leo call it ‘sophistry’, ‘bollocks’ and ‘theology’. Just in case you were even thinking about sucumbing to the slightest socialist leaning. So for me, this is literature in service of capitalist ideology. By stripping its portrait of Romania of historical detail it deflects any attempt to explain its miserable disintegration by any argument except the total bankruptcy of leftist thought. The specific brutality of the Ceasescu regime, its obscene excesses of propaganda lies and the death of culture, expressiveness, opportunity and any spark of joy that makes life actually worth living it imposed on the Romanian people even when it did not actually murder, torture or imprison them, is all laid at the door of socialism generally, to be weaponised as needed.

Right I’m done with that, sorry. I think I’ve used all my political chips, but I’ll just have a jab at the presentation of gender and relationships while I’m here. The narrator mainly functions as witness-to-Leo’s-antics, but he has a couple of affairs which serve to illustrate felt response to the stranger-than-fiction reality around him. The first relationship impedes his autonomy; he is used by his partner (though the whole affair and especially the yucky sex scenes work as fulfillment of male fantasy – we are meant to identify entirely with his perspective). Thus, it cannot be authentic because it violates the norms of heteropatriarchy. His partner, retaining her autonomy, is consistently presented as amoral and self-centred. The second relationship is presented as authentic because he responds emotionally; this partner surrenders her independence to him so all is right with the world.

The book starts off well, slightly overdone, in a way that seems quite appropriate: the humiliation and boredom of life under the regime is leavened by its sheer weirdness: the hint of baroque excess gives the text its charm, softens us up to be seduced by Leo. By the end, McGuiness seems to have lost momentum, and I was bored. Perhaps it’s deliberate! Like everyone still alive, I was relieved when the revolution came. But, starting with the corpses of Timisoara, there are too many nameless victims serving this tale. The people Leo’s actions affect negatively are always invisible, while everyone he helps individually commands our sympathy as they do his. But of course, life is like that, there is only a choice between bad Leo (selfish capitalism) and worse Ceausescu (totalitarian socialism), isn’t there?

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