Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Booker Longlist: The Last Hundred Days

Patrick McGuiness's novel The Last Hundred Days is another of this year's debut novels to have made it to the long-list. Shot through with poetry, the novel is at its best when at its most meditative, when everything slows down to concentrate on a particular moment. Then it regains speed, and the sharp focus seems suddenly almost dreamlike as the images and action whip themselves into a disarming crescendo. In this, it is a novel so vivid it is filmic, and may well at times have been written with the film in mind, but McGuiness never loses sight of the literariness of his enterprise.

Set in the dying days of Ceaucescu's Bucharest, the novel depicts a regime both absurd and appalling. It is decadent, vicious and disappearing. The premise of the novel is Kafka-esque - an unnamed narrator ends up teaching at Bucharest university on the basis of an interview which never took place - and so we are encouraged from the beginning to think of this novel in existentialist terms. The protagonist is caught up in a series of relationships which he cannot comprehend, moving between incompatible worlds of corrupt luxury and crumbling reality.

One of the best characters in the novel is Leo. A jaded academic, with an engagingly acerbic take on the city for the narrator, Leo is writing a book, the City of Lost Walks, in which he aims to chart all the disappearing monuments, churches and parks of a city which is daily reconstructed for Ceaucescu's modernisation programme. This uncertain cartography serves as an urgent metaphor for the uncertainty with which all the characters navigate their lives, both literally and morally.

The city is vividly  evoked. Baggy, beautiful, bewildered and part-demolished, the descriptions are reminiscent of Iain Sinclair's deep meditations and love affair with London. And it is these evocations of the city, above all, that lend the novel its greatest authenticity. The narrator is cut loose, disassociated from his own life and from his relationships, which makes him hard to care about. But here, in this disintegrating city of shifting alliances and  sudden descents, he is shown at his most innocent: the innocence, it is true, of the ingenue, but innocence nonetheless.  And we are beguiled into following his stumbling progress through the alarmingly realised city.

Impressive rather than lovable, this is nevertheless a finely wrought and compelling novel.

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