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Epoch of Light, Dignity and Joy!
on 24 June 2013
This longish novel relates the final eight months of the hard-line regime of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. The book is highly readable, often fascinating, but has significant flaws.
Much like 'Snowdrops', also thumbs-upped by Booker Prize judges in 2011, we have the often-seen set-up of a rootless, naive man coming to a foreign country and quickly finding himself involved in confusing and potentially dangerous events ('The Last King of Scotland' is another example, plus a number of Graham Greene's novels, of course). In McGuinness's version, the anonymous narrator, a recent graduate with no attachments at home, finds himself being offered a job - despite not turning up for the interview - at Bucharest University. There he meets the charismatic, vaguely Ballardian figure of Leo O'Heix, fellow academic, psychogeographic flaneur and master black-marketeer. With extraordinary speed, the narrator is dragged not only into Leo's shady networks, but into the political epicentre of the burgeoning revolution. He meets a politician's daughter, the predictably glamorous but shadowy Celia, and - just as predictably - begins a relationship with her (quite what his attraction is for her, we aren't told). From there, he crosses paths with various sinister, shadowy characters, both old and young, as around him, dissent starts to build and the regime's triumphalist slogans begin to look increasingly empty.
The workings of totalitarian states are always fascinating and McGuinness does a good, detailed job of putting across the paranoia and madness; nothing new perhaps, but convincing and with trenchant commentary. He evokes an increasingly ruined Bucharest with skill. The novel's main problems are centred on the character of the narrator; his story is implausible, and so are his responses. He seems to be both fearless and detached, questioning politicians, backchatting secret police, involving himself recklessly with agitators - yet we never find out what his motivations are, and even when Leo nearly gets killed, he seems impervious. McGuinness sets him up as a 'blank', yet he is obviously driven by something - we just don't know what. He also never seems to do any work. What's more, the novel is sub-standard technically. Occasionally the narration lurches horribly into an omnipotent viewpoint and, particularly at the end, McGuinness makes errors with the timeline. And how are the characters conversing? Are we to believe everyone in Bucharest in 1989 spoke remarkably good English or has the narrator learnt Romanian with unheard-of speed? The last seventy-five pages detailing the bloody final days could certainly be cut by fifty, as they do little more than relate a story we already know, and the novel's post-revolution summation - 'new brothel, same old whores,' - is hardly revelatory.