I don’t even remember where I came across the title of this book, but I ordered it simply because I had visited Romania last year and became familiar with Romania’s history and Nicolae Ceausescu’s leadership and demise. Having spent just two days in Bucharest, I barely had enough time to take in its current iteration much less its past, yet I was mesmerized by the beauty and the decay and the history that led to all of it. We saw the balcony where Ceausescu made his last speech, we saw the gigantic Parliament building and the Avenue of the Victory of Socialism (both of which were built on mowed down blocks of previous architecture), as well as the beautiful University of Bucharest Library, and the quaint, quirky Old Town. And among all of it…crumbling, ugly Soviet Era buildings already dilapidated. It’s an interesting place. So, yep, that’s why I bought the book. But then I was captured on the very first page by the writing: “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 a 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…” (7). And that’s pretty much the quality of his writing. Wow.
The story is narrated by a young Brit who has come to Bucharest to teach at the University, though we don’t get much of anything about his classes or students. Instead, the focus is on his colleagues, particularly Leo O’Heix, and the many messy friendships, surveillances, black market dealings, bribing, and such that are common to everyday life in 1989 Bucharest–the last few months of Ceausescus’ rule. At times, it’s a little tough to keep track of who is who–but hey, we’re talking about the most corrupt Communist era ruler, so understanding who is loyal to whom is part of the structure: pretty much no one is loyal to no one but everyone is spying on everyone.
I’m not sure I would have fully appreciated this book with out the personal connection to the city, the country, and its history, but it is a well told story (yes, story–it’s fiction but somewhat based on historical events and very much based on the feeling of that society). For anyone who wants a better understanding of what it means to live in a state of paranoia and crisis in the final stages of a corrupt Eastern Europe regime, this is the book for you. I’ve seen nothing but great reviews of this novel.