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Man Booker Prize 2011 longlist: Patrick McGuinness interview

Man Booker Prize 2011 longlist: Patrick McGuinness interview

MBP: You've been nominated for the Man Booker Prize with your debut novel The Last Hundred Days. Do you believe literary prizes to be important and is the Man Booker Prize particularly significant?

PM: I used to quite sceptical of literary prizes, but for some reason I've suddenly started to see the merit in them... Seriously though, the importance of prizes should be measured less by how they promote individuals than what they do for their art form, and it's clear they help get an increasingly busy and spoilt-for-choice public interested. It's obvious that the Man Booker is the biggest of the fiction prizes, and even before being longlisted myself I always appreciated the unpredictability of the long- and shortlists, and often, too, of the winner. Unpredictability is a good tradition to continue, and I certainly didn't predict being longlisted.

MBP: The Last Hundred Days depicts the last days of power of Romania's dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. You lived in Ceausescu's Romania yourself - can you tell us a bit more about living there are that time?

PM: My novel has elements of autobiography in it: the narrator's youth, unformedness, his bystander-to-his-own-life quality. But it's a highly exaggerated and poeticised version of the reality I lived, which though it was quite extreme was often grinding and grey. Parts of that life were dangerous too. Bucharest was a beautiful city; once called 'The Paris of the East', it was easy to love. As were the people, who were hard and resilient. I describe Bucharest being like a cross between Paris and Istanbul. It was a mix of cultures, histories, influences, but parts of the city were being destroyed by Ceausescu to make room for his 'Socialist City': a Stalinist Legoland, great fantasias of brutalist architecture. What is it with dictators and kitsch? One of my characters tries to revive the old city by using old maps from the 1890s and 1920s, trying to raise it up from the ruins. That's one of the book's underlying themes: our maps, our own lost walks, our abandoned or razed cities are inside us too.

My poems are often about death and mourning, of which I've seen a lot in my 'real' life, so it was natural that I took the subject of a dying system - communism - but also a city in danger of dying. I sought out that darkness, projected it I suppose, onto what one might call 'world events'. I believe that people and places, are most themselves, they become their own essence, when they're about to disappear. They become fulfilled as they finish. Its hard to explain rationally, much easier to show sidelong in a poem or meanderingly in a novel, as I tried to do. I've been accused of being obsessed by endings. Endings are a form of perfection, when the thing, place or person becomes totally itself for a moment, then goes. A kind of flowering of all it was meant to be.

MBP: A novel about revolution is obviously particularly significant at the moment - with so much upheaval across the Middle East. Have you been watching these events and drawing parallels with what happened in Romania?

PM: Well, I was a child in Iran during the Islamic revolution, as my father worked for the British Council there. My mother and sister and I were sent back to Belgium while he carried on working in his English civil servant way, with half the house burned out. I remember watching the news with my Belgian family and trying to work out what my father might be doing. I suppose my fascination with revolution comes from that. After spending three years in Romania and just missing the overthrow of Ceausescu (I had to watch it in my student bedsit) I felt I'd been cheated of my second revolution. So I wrote a novel instead.

I'm also answering this question while half-listening to an internet news report about Mubarak being stretchered into his trial; this morning I read some updates on Libya and Syria, and I remember lying in bed one morning on a very cold day listening to the start of the Arab Spring, in Tunisia, where I was born. Yes, my novel is unexpectedly topical. It describes the Romanian revolution, but from an odd angle: the bystander, but also the bystander listening to the revolution on the radio while it goes on outside his window. That scene is a symbol (inasmuch as I 'intend' things to be symbolic) of how we interact with history in the modern age: it may be happening 'to' us, but we're also spectators of our own lives and times.

If you're there, during a revolution, it's pure energy, pure flow. Afterwards it all solidifies, congeals you could say, as the new regime (often not that different from the old one...) pieces itself together, becomes still, imputes to itself the logic of history, etc. But what happens to the movement, the flow, the energy? Where does it go?

Dictators' trials are important parts of this too, parts of the iconography of regime change, upheaval, revolution - remember the Ceausescus' trial: a bizarre bunker kangaroo court where even their defence lawyer has to be reined in for abusing them! Mrs Ceausescu is even accused of owning too many pairs of shoes (again: dictators and shoes - Imelda Marcos, Saddam Hussein's statue being hit by a shoe, etc). She tells her husband to wrap up and put his scarf on - this, a few minutes before they're shot. For a moment, those small, insignificant proprieties stand up to death with their ridiculousness, give the Ceausescus dignity. Just before being taken outside and shot, she is asked how old she is and replies 'You shouldn't ask a woman her age'. Surreal, mad, grotesque and, yes, a kind of perfection. It's on Youtube. Watch that and feel the bloodlust in you compete with the sense of desolation and guilty voyeurism.

The book is also about corruption and how one lives with it and in spite of it. Corruption in its largest sense: from small bribes to total systemic rot, from lovers' white lies to to complete duplicity and even - does the word exist? it should do... - triplicity. Corruption is interesting: it has its codes, its traditions, is complexities. It's also full of texture, something dark and curdling under the surface of all our lives.

MBP: You are Professor of French and Comparative Literature at Oxford University - how easy is it to make the switch from talking about literature from an academic perspective and then sitting down to write a novel or poetry?

PM: Very easy - I don't see any contradiction. I experience literature through the senses and through the emotions. Both academic and creative writing can be forms of enquiry, curiosity, fulfilment.

MBP: Although The Last Hundred Days is your first novel, you've published award-winning collections of poetry. At what point did you decide to sit down and write a novel and was the approach very different to writing poetry?

PM: The poet writing a novel has several traps, many of which I've fallen into: over-description and slabs of set-pieces; micro-interest in sensations and textures, and gratuitous phrase-making, all of which can slow or tangle up a plot. But on the other hand you have to write the way you feel, using what you know and know you can do.

Bucharest has haunted me for years. For years I dreamed about the place, and I have one recurring dream - I haven't had it since I finished my novel, so my novel must have exorcised it - that I go back to a part of the city I know and it's gone, been bulldozed, and that I can't get my bearings from the map. That dream fed my novel and fed, too, the urge to write it. The book's original title was City of Lost Walks. That's what places are, but also time is like that, memory: cities of lost walks.

I sat and began the novel because I realised that I'd never get it out of my head until I got it on paper. I wanted to see if, by writing it, I could conjure back the lost walks.

MBP: What are you working on next?

PM: Another novel, different, shorter and less convoluted.

I invented a poet for my novel, a character called Liviu Campanu, but cut him out as he slowed the pace. I gave him a few lines of poetry, which I quite liked, so I built poems around them. Soon I found I had a small collection of his work, and he became my alter ego. I now write his poems and 'translate' them too. He's become quite popular - in fact a couple poetry critics said Campanu was the best thing about my recent book of poems, Jilted City. But he's a product - a by-product - of my novel, and he'll have his own book of poems soon.

Patrick McGuinness, shot for The Man Booker Prize
Patrick McGuinness, shot for The Man Booker Prize