By 1989 Nicolae Ceausescu had been the communist ruler of Romania for twenty-four years. This was to be his last year. Focusing on Ceausescu's last hundred days, author Patrick McGuinness recreates all the forces leading to the overthrow of the government, telling his story through the eyes of an unnamed twenty-one-year-old speaker from the UK. To escape terribly memories at home, the young man applied for a foreign posting and was given a job teaching English in Bucharest, a job for which he had neither applied nor appeared for an interview.
In Bucharest his mentor, Leo O'Heix, shows him "the Paris of the East," which now more clearly resembles "a deserted funfair." The elegant Capsa Hotel, where the waiters have been trained in French manners, serves Chateaubriand "while in the shops beyond, unstacked shelves gleamed under twists of flypaper and the crimeless streets shouldered their burden of emptiness." At Capsa, the party faithful and the moneyed come to make connections, negotiate personal deals, and enjoy food not available anywhere else. "It's all here, passion, intimacy, human fellowship," Leo tells him. "You just need to adapt to the circumstances...it's a bit of a grey area to be honest. Actually...it's all grey area round here," but this is "the Romanian way," the speaker learns, and it is adapt or get out. Leo has adapted to Romanian life completely - he is Bucharest's biggest black-marketeer.
Gradually, Bucharest comes to life (and death) through the speaker's eyes. The city is being bulldozed at a rapid rate, and the old architectural monuments and historical buildings are being replaced with cheap, modern buildings. Shop signs appear on new buildings, but the shops are empty. Hungry people wait for hours in long lines, only to discover that it has run out. Even the headstones have disappeared from cemeteries, removed by the government for use in building the People's Palace, a colossal monument begun in 1983 and second in size only to the U.S. Pentagon. The "velvet revolution" has started everywhere except Romania - East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and even Russia - yet Ceausescu remains in power here.
The author does a remarkable job of recreating Bucharest, which is really the main character here, a place with incredible resilience, around which all the human characters revolve as the author connects them with the city's history, its communist functionaries, its "flexible" morality, and its often inflexible laws and dictates. The speaker finds himself growing up as he makes choices or has them made for him, and he eventually adapts to being followed. No one is who s/he seems to be, and the tension rises as the speaker and his friends find themselves in increasingly fraught circumstances. The reader, familiar with the characters, comes to know and expect them to act in particular ways, but often discovers at the last minute betrayals have occurred. The author is particularly realistic in making no real value judgments about most of these characters, even those who may act "unethically." In times of such crisis, who knows what any of us would do, he seems to suggest. Subtle, often humorous, and profoundly ironic, this is a unique approach to a study of a city in the midst of evolution and then revolution and its aftermath, and none of the characters here will remain unchanged. Fascinating on all levels. Mary Whipple