The Last Hundred Days by Paul McGuinness, nominated for the Man Booker PrizeReading the Longlist

At Work In a

Disappearing City

The Last Hundred Days
by Patrick McGuinness
Review by Paul Kind

Patrick McGuinness’ The Last Hundred Days was swept into international recognition quickly: it had only been available to readers for a few days when it was nominated for this year’s Man Booker Prize. Since then, it has enjoyed a simpler, steadier, much-deserved literary appreciation, but the novel’s life began in a flash, much the same as its story.

The unnamed narrator of The Last Hundred Days learns that he has been offered a position at the University in Bucharest after a successful interview. The interview, though, never took place. The narrator, disconcerted, nevertheless takes up his new position and is befriended by Leo, his guide to the bizarre, corrupt, and mysterious bureaucratic outpost that the school has become. If it were not for the clear, precise, and pointed prose, the school could well exist in the same world as Kafka’s courthouse in The Trial. The Bucharest of The Last Hundred Days is crumbling as the Ceausescu regime by turns stumbles and charges toward its inevitable bloody conclusion. Demolition crews ravage the city's oldest buildings while cranes and trucks sit idle, paused midway toward building their replacements in Ceausescu’s final push toward modernization. The novel takes place during the final hundred days of the regime’s power. The city, the campus, the shops, and the people all evoke the anxiety and danger of the coming end.

McGuinness accomplishes this through expert use of the images and tropes of the detective-noir and thriller genres. His protagonist is an outsider to this world, experiencing it as always new, the vaguely post-apocalyptic scene of Bucharest unmarred for him by the history and prior city life through which the novel’s other characters understand it. This helps McGuinness avoid the pitfalls of historical fiction—this is a novel without a single serendipitous encounter with a famous historical figure, image, or scene. There are no long descriptions of historical circumstance, landscape, or fashion. Instead, the intensity of the setting inspires a corresponding intensity in the sentences, paragraphs, and pacing. Each encounter with a new character, and each turn around a new corner, leads the narrator deeper into an understanding of the character of the city he is inhabiting, while the disappearance of that city has a profound effect on its other inhabitants; they grow more mysterious and more generic, seeming to lose grasp of their individual identities with every building that falls. Ω

Paul Kind has most recently written about the new pretension: foodie-ism, and the existential danger of comparison-shopping overpriced cheese knives..