DISMISS

Patrick McGuinness

Interested in what things look like when we're not looking

Born in Tunis, Tunisia. Based in Caernarfon, Wales/Oxford, England, UK.

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About

Born in Tunisia, brought up in a small post-industrial town in Belgium, then educated in the UK, where he was Englished until the age of 18. Studied at Cambridge, York and Oxford, and now at Oxford University.

Patrick McGuinness writes fiction, poetry and non-fiction. His novel, The Last Hundred Days, was longlisted for the Man Booker, and shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, the Desmond Elliott Prize and the Authors' Club Prize, and won the Writers' Guild Award for fiction and the Wales Book of the Year. In French it was shortlisted for the prix Fémina and Médicis étrangers.

His memoir Other People's Countries was shortlisted for the James Tait Black and the PEN Ackerley award, and won the Duff Cooper Prize and the Wales Book of  the Year.

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Bibliography

Other People's Countries, 2014, Jonathan Cape

The Last Hundred Days, 2011, Seren

Jilted City, 2010, Carcanet

The Canals of Mars, 2004, Carcanet

Extract: The Last Hundred Days

                    ‘And yet, the ways we miss our life are life’ – Randall Jarrell

In 1980s Romania, boredom was a state of extremity. There was nothing neutral about it: it strung you out and stretched you; it tugged away at the bottom of your day like shingle scraping at a boat’s hull. In the West we’ve always thought of boredom as slack time, life’s lift music sliding off the ear.  Totalitarian boredom is different. It’s a state of expectation already heavy with its own disappointment, the event and its anticipation braided together in a continuous loop of tension and anti-climax.

You saw it all day long in the food queues as tins of North Korean pilchards, bottles of rock-bottom Yugoslav Sliwowitz, or loaves of potato-dust bread reached the shopE. People stood, in sub-zero temperatures or in unbearable heat, and waited. Eyes blank, bodies numb, they shuffled step-by-step towards the queue’s beginning. No-one knew how much there was of anything. Often you didn’t even know what there was. You could queue for four hours only for everything to run out just as you reached the counter. Some forgot what they were waiting for, or couldn’t recognise it when they got it.  You came for bread and got Yugo rotgut; the alcoholics jittered for their rotgut and got pilchards or shoe polish, and it wasn't by taste that you could tell them apart. Sometimes the object of the queue changed mid-way through:  a meat queue became a queue for Chinese basketball shoes; Israeli oranges segued into disposable cameras from East Germany. It didn’t matter – whatever it was, you bought it. Financial exchange was just a preliminary; within hours, the networks of barter and black-marketeering would be vibrating with fresh commodities.

It was impossible to predict which staple would suddenly become a scarcity, which humdrum basic would be transformed into a luxury. Even the dead felt the pinch. Since the gargantuan building projects had begun in the early 1980s, marble and stone were requisitioned by the state for façade work and interior design. In the cemeteries the graves were marked out with wooden planks, table-legs, chairs, even broomsticks. Ceausescu’s new Palace of the People could be measured not just in square metres but in gravestones. It was surreal, or would have been if it wasn’t the only reality available.
 

I had arrived full of the kind of optimism that, in retrospect, I recognise as a sure sign that things would go wrong, and badly. Not for me, for I was a passer-by; or, more exactly, a passer-through. Things happened around me, over me, even across me, but never to me. Even when I was there, in the thick of it, during those last hundred days.
                                        

To step onto the half-empty plane at Heathrow that mid-April day was already to step back in time. Tarom was the Romanian airline, but its fleet was composed of old Air France Boeings which, like so much else in Romania, had been recycled and brought back into use. It felt more like the 1960s than the 1980s.  The air hostesses wore square suits and pillbox hats, and had applied make-up less to accentuate their features than to accompany them from a distance.

I took my seat in an empty row near the front and read the battered in-flight magazine. Two years out of date, it told of Romanian delicacies and showed blurred models of the ‘Boulevard of Socialist Victory’, a project described as ‘the culmination modern Romania’s vision under Comrade President Nicolae Ceausescu’. The touched-up picture of Ceausescu was on the inside cover – Tovarasul Conducator, Comrade Leader – looking twenty years younger and with the lightly-bloated marzipan blush of an embalmed corpse.

Even at Heathrow, with the flights landing and taking off all around us and London proliferating in the distance, our plane had become a capsule of its destination and its epoch. Both felt further away than the three and a half hours it took to fly to Bucharest.

I was still in my suit. I had had no time to change, much less go back to the house before catching my flight. I had attended the funeral with my suitcase and hand luggage, which I left in the crematorium lobby during the service. I hadn’t meant to upstage him – there was room for only one departure that day – but that was how it all fell together: my new job, the new country, unalterable plane tickets. ‘It’s not every day you bury your father’, someone had said to me by way of reproach. No, but if like me you spent every day wishing you could, the event itself was bound to have its complicated side. Of course, that’s not what I replied. I just nodded and watched them all pretending to pray, straining for that faraway look, something in themselves to help them say, later, how they’d levelled with death this afternoon, and hadn’t erred into thinking about dinner or tonight’s TV.  
 

After landing we waited for the VIPs to disembark, square-suited men in grey with wives who looked moulded from a mixture of custard and cement. Their luggage was taken out unchecked and placed into anthracite-black limousines. I had seen the cars before too – the rear-engined Renault 14, the Dacia, made from French prototypes by the Romanian national car plant.  The name meant something, as I knew from my limited reading-up: the Dacians, survivors of the siege of Troy, poor cousins separated from the Roman tribe, founding their island of Latinity in eastern Europe encircled by Slavs, martyred by the Turks, caught now in the dark orbit of the Soviet Union. 

This was April, but we had arrived in a heatwave. Outside the plane everything reverberated in the heat. The tarmac glistened, stuck and puckered underfoot, sweating out its oil. Beyond the perimeter fence stretched flat acres of chalky grass and net fencing over which a horse-drawn plough rumbled. A dead animal lay torn, caught in a tiller’s blades and strewn in rags across the ploughlines.  From high above, the furrowed fields had suggested musical notation. Up close it was just earth, turned and turned back over, earth that never rested, and those who worked it were hunched and beaten down with drudgery.

The VIP cavalcade drove off, the way the wealthy and the powerful do wherever you find them: without looking back, into the next thing.
 

That smell of airports: the peppery scent of vertigo, exhalations of vacuum cleaners, perfume, smoke, used air. A sublimate of spent jet fuel and burned-off ozone giving the sky its improbable clear blue.

Otopeni airport was a two-storey building with plate-glass walls and red-veined marble floors; overstaffed, but with nothing happening. This atmosphere of menace and fretful apathy engulfed public buildings everywhere in Romania. The next flight, from Moscow, was not for two hours. The previous one, from Belgrade, had been and gone an hour ago. The airport was a place of perpetual lull, perpetual betweenness, as transitional as the plane we had just left behind. But it’s the transitional places that hold us all the longer and enclose us all the more.

‘Welcome to Romania’ read a tricolour billboard. The Romanian flag, blue, yellow and red with a Party crest in the centre, drooped on its pole and trembled in the faintest of drafts. Militia outnumbered civilians by two to one. Women in knee-height lace-up sandals pushed dry mops along floors, redistributing butt-ends and sweet wrappers over the marble. Great tubular ashtrays overflowed with crushed cigarettes and a miasma of blue smoke was wrapped around what remained of the air.

The customs officers operated with malign lethargy, deriving so little satisfaction from the misery they inflicted that it seemed hardly worth the effort.  But they inflicted it anyway. Up ahead, through the glass walls, I saw the black Dacias, already clear, coursing down Otopeni boulevard towards the city that was to be my home.

When my turn came I was made to unpack and account for the little I had. The two customs officers were well-balanced. One had a face without a trace of expression, the other a face on which different expressions slugged it out for supremacy, inconclusively. The first spoke ragged English while the second, smoking US cigarettes, spoke fluently in an American accent. If the Romanian police had a fast-stream, he was it – expressionless, lean, unreadable.
 

‘What welcomes you to Romania?’
 

It was a good question, and called out for a witticism, but this was no time to test the national sense of humour. He took my coffee and two chocolate bars and pocketed them with a flourish. His eyes never leaving mine, he added the batteries from my Walkman while his colleague, by some pre-arranged system of equalization, confiscated my carton of duty-free cigarettes.
 

‘Tax’. Deadpan.
 

My taxi, a white Dacia with tiger stripes of rust and an ill-fitting blue driver’s door, was driven wordlessly by a man whose face I couldn’t see and who didn’t turn once to look at me.
 

Coming over Bucharest you noticed the city’s contrasts immediately: a rigid geometry of avenues with new housing blocks, high-rise flats and public follies skewering the skyline. Around and between them, a shambles of old churches, winding roads, houses and small parks. As from the air, so from the ground: the old town revealed itself to you in layers; the new town came at you in lines.

Bucharest was not a city that tapered away, suburb by suburb, into countryside; nor did the countryside intensify, street by street, into a central urban hub. There were simply two miles of bad roads and fields; then suddenly apartment blocks reared up, the bumpy track flattened out beneath the tyres, and a city had materialised under and around you.