Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Urban Dislocation

This week I finished reading The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness, who as well as being a poet and (with this novel) Booker long-listed author is also Professor of French Literature at Oxford. This possibly partially autobiographical book is about a drifting young Brit who finds himself in Ceausescu’s Romania during what transpires to be the regime’s endgame in 1989. The Last Hundred Days is probably the best evocation of life under Communism I’ve read since Marian Brandys’ memoir Moje Przygody z Historią (‘My Adventures with/in History’), which I read, I have to admit, for my Polish A-Level.

McGuinness wonderfully evokes a Bucharest in which the boundaries between space and time have become strangely fluid, as the regime tears down belle époque villas and medieval monasteries in order to erect in their place an ‘Stalinist legoland’. At its centre point is the Palace of the People – as the character Leo declares, “When they’ve finished building it, the whole of communism will climb in there, shut the doors, and die.” The pace of urban vandalism is so fast that the characters are regularly lost. As they wander around 1980s’ Bucharest at night armed with 1920s’ maps, they stumble upon people dancing to accordion and fiddler music by lamplight, or deserted nineteenth-century palazzos, unsure if they have accidentally crossed over into an earlier century, or an eternal Bucharest living in the gaps between past and present.

I was thinking about The Last Hundred Days during the Long Vacation, when I turned into Saint Giles and had my own experience of stunning urban dislocation. That long thoroughfare of buses, trees and college buildings had become a kilometre long traffic-free fairground, packed with people pushing buggies, kids holding bags of cotton candie, and the most extraordinary rides – a 3 storey high ghost train erected right against the façade of the Humanities Division, a twister which sent screaming teenagers hurtling within feet of the dour face of Saint John’s college, and a ride which shot people up into the sky higher over the spire of the Martyrs' Memorial. This subversive spectacle reminded me of early modern carnivals, when authorities and dominant institutions were mocked and riotous fun ruled the streets – the world turned (literally for the riders) upside down. It felt like crossing into an alternative Oxford.

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