«The Last Hundred Days» - A conversation with Patrick McGuinness
Transcript of the interview (Collège Hotel, Lyon, 24/05/2014)
Clifford Armion: Your first novel, The Last Hundred Days, deals with the end of the Ceausescu regime in Romania. It is partly autobiographical right? You spent some time there in the 1980’s, in Bucharest.
Patrick McGuinness: Yes I did. I had a strange job teaching English to diplomats, mostly French people in fact because there was a Lycée français in Bucharest and I taught some of the teachers English. That’s why I ended up in Bucharest at that time. The book is partly autobiographical. It’s not what the French call autofiction but it is a book that uses quite a lot of my own experiences and sadly not the exciting ones. All the exciting experiences to do with high politics or sexual intrigue I had to use my imagination for. All the bits about being bored I took from le vif as you would say.
C.A.: Did you feel it would make a good subject for a book at the time? Did you take notes while you were there?
P.M.: I didn’t take notes. I kept everything in my head. I have a good memory, an almost photographic memory for sights and the equivalent of photographic memory for tastes and smells. Often it’s a very bad thing but when you write fiction it’s very good. I didn’t take any notes but I knew I would write about it.
C.A.: There’s a sort of mise en abime of writing about Bucharest. One of your protagonists is writing a sort of travel book describing how the past of the city is being erased by the modern communist architecture. Is it what makes those last hundred days particularly interesting, the fact that it is a society that is erasing its past while having not much of a future at all?
P.M.: Absolutely. When I was there, Ceausescu was demolishing huge sways of old Bucharest, as you know perhaps because the French have got a special relationship with the Romanians. Bucharest was a very Francophile town. One of the things about architecture is that it looked like a fusion between Paris and somewhere like Istanbul. There were absolutely beautiful buildings and Ceausescu was demolishing all this stuff so that literally one day to the next you would walk past a familiar building and find that it had gone. I wanted to try to recreate in words the city that was being destroyed. So yes I had a character who was trying to rebuild the town or at least preserve it in language, trying to write a guidebook, trying to reassemble an ideal city from all the guidebooks that he had. This is what we do with cities and with villages. We have the real thing and then we have this series of fantasies which we impose upon it. For years after leaving Bucharest I had a regular dream that I was back in Bucharest trying to orientate myself with a map but I couldn’t recognize the buildings, nothing was left and sometimes the map was just completely blank. When this book finally came out, 25 years after I had been to Bucharest, I stopped having the dream. I must have – to my own satisfaction – rebuilt the city. But I’ve never been back.
C.A.: You were talking about boredom earlier. The book made me think of Orwell’s 1984. Did you have dystopia in mind when you wrote it?
P.M.: No I didn’t but when I lived in Bucharest I remember seeing the film. I had already read the book 1984 but when I was in Bucharest the film with Richard Burton had come out a year before and there were videos circulating on the black market and I saw it then. I suppose Orwell’s vision is much more terrifying than mine. My vision was based on the end of the regime and you can see it beginning to crumble. There’s a good part of the ridiculous and thankfully this particular totalitarian regime was often sufficiently inefficient and unable to impose itself so that there were pockets of life and authenticity. The view that Orwell gives us is almost unbearable, a place where there is no exit. I remember finding that book deeply upsetting, especially when I reread it after coming back from Bucharest. I don’t have the systematic intellect or the philosophical acuity that someone like Orwell has. I’m much more of a sensualist and I’m much more sentimental. What I was trying to do in my book was trying to bring out the smells, the textures, the feelings of human beings under totalitarianism. I attempt to inject humour and a certain levity into the situations which someone like Orwell simply wouldn’t have seen as important or useful in what he was trying to do.
C.A.: Is there a parallel to be drawn between the personal story of the character and the history of the regime, between the dying father and the dying regime?
P.M.: I suppose so. I’m not sure I intended that consciously but it’s a book that it obsessed with ending, with decadence and decline. It’s something that has always interested me mainly because I spent far too long reading French literature with your Baudelaire and Huysmans (A Rebours). So of course there is the décadence, déliquescence, the faisandé, this idea of something gamy that is just about to turn rotten but before it becomes rotten and inedible it is at its most delicious, at its absolute peak. I suppose I feel like that about everything. The moment before things explode is the essence, to use another word from Huysmans’s vocabulary. Relationships, friendships, love affairs, regimes, all of them are at their absolute best, their most faisandé, just before the crash. What I did want to get across was this idea of incredible personal, political, collective corruption with which the whole system was rotten and yet corruption has a system like anything else. It’s an organic process. So yes there are some parallels between certain kinds of relationships between a person and another person or a person and the government.
C.A.: If we come back to Huysmans and Baudelaire, would you say that in the book corruption replaces the sort of vain sophistication that you find in those French authors?
P.M.: I think that’s right. Corruption becomes the place where you go for texture and for experience. We know that totalitarianism is repressive and brutal and all of that but what we don’t always know is just how boring it can be. The French word ennui is better. Boring makes it sound too trivial. It’s a sort of dragging, tedious emptiness of day that you get in a world with no freedom. In the West we always focus on visible suffering whereas what struck me when I was there was this sense of painful tedium mixed with a bit of fear, apathy. So the corruption of the system, the black market gives you some of the excitement. The black market is always unexpected, it’s a shadow society, a double of the visible society in the same way sewers are the doubles of the roads that take you through the city. So yes corruption becomes a sort of gleaming Baudelairean treasure glinting down there that can become very attractive. When I was there I quite happily got involved in minor corruption. I’m glad I did because otherwise I’d have nothing to write about. Corruption is part of the organic process and it’s a kind of parasite identity but it can overtake the system. By the end, in communist Romania, the whole economy was held together by this kind of para-economy of corruption. If corruption and the black market didn’t exist there would simply have been no circulation of goods. So you end up with a paradox where the anti-system becomes the only thing that is holding up the system, which is sometimes true of parasites: they end up keeping the host organism alive rather than killing it. That’s what clever parasites do.
Pour citer cette ressource :
Clifford Armion, Patrick McGuinness, "«The Last Hundred Days» - A conversation with Patrick McGuinness", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), juin 2014. Consulté le 07/12/2023. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/entretiens-et-textes-inedits/the-last-hundred-days-a-conversation-with-patrick-mcguinness