Belgitude in Bucharest: an adrift sense of belonging

Update, April 2015: see my post on Other people’s countries: the malady of time and place. It’s also nice to see that Patrick returned to Bucharest last summer.

I picked up on Patrick McGuinness via the Guardian review of Other people’s countries (Amazon; 2014), described as “the great book on Belgium, modern memory and modern being”. McGuinness is half Belgian – insert “which half” joke here:

Being only half-Belgian does not disqualify me from the slightly adrift sense of belonging that constitutes Belgitude, because all Belgians are only half-Belgian.

He’s half Walloon, while my partner is fully Flemish. In the poem Belgitude (audio), one of several in his first collection The Canals of Mars (2004) McGuinness writes: “Surveys showed that most Belgians questioned/ would have preferred to be from somewhere else”, while The Belgiad captures the nature of Belgian towns: “Caesarean state:/ every roadsign a mirror/ every town a suburb…All has that faint emphasis, as if the place were in italics,/ could look like elsewhere yet be nowhere else. ”

In A page in the life McGuinness is described as a “poet and novelist who is most at home elsewhere”, and in a reading at Villanova University he explores how our lives can be thought of as cities – roads turn out not to be there, while we inhabit several places at once and make maps of our lives and memories. This all strikes a chord with life as an ‘international’; see

The immigrant who arrives too late in life to adapt to his new country, but too early to survive on nostalgia for the old country, has to create a third, imagined country to live in.

I’ve started though with The last hundred days (Amazon; 2011), on the fall of the Ceaușescu regime in Romania, which made the Booker longlist. Maybe I’m reading differently these days, but heck this is well written. The Independent review cites some of the “aperçus that have the reader reaching for a pencil”:

the Boulevard of Socialist Victory: “a vast avenue that didn’t so much vanish into the distance as use it up, drawing everything around into itself”

As a bonus it turns out the book has a walking theme. The narrator’s rather lovely colleague Prof Leo O’Heix is writing a book called The city of lost walks:

Leo worked on his book about Bucharest…he could not keep up with the city’s obliteration. The place was coming down quicker than it could be described…it survived in guide books and memoirs, and in the trove of notes and photographs that lay heaped on Leo’s dining table, waiting to be turned into prose. The prose, meanwhile, went from topical to commemorative in a fraction of the time it usually took such transformations…Leo had begun writing a practical guidebook for a travel company, but finished up composing an urban elegy, a memorial to a place gone or going at very cobble and cornice.

Against the wall a metre-square map of Bucharest, stuck with lines and clusters of coloured pins, was attached to a cork board. ‘Red pins are the walks taken, blue pins are the walks yet to take. Black ones are the walks you can’t take any more – the lost walks’.

Leo’s apartment is full of books, paintings, icons salvaged from wrecked buildings, papered with photographs of the country’s destruction and home to scrapbooks and videos hidden in the boxes of action films – “his flat had become the city’s hidden visage, like a backwards portrait of Dorian Grey: as the place itself disappeared around us, so Leo’s apartment grew in compressed splendour”.

The last section of Jilted city (Amazon; reviews/quotes: Guardian | TLS | Tower Poetry), McGuinness’ 2010 volume of poetry, is a set of poems also called City of lost walks, allegedly written by Romanian poet Liviu Campanu (1932-1994) and translated by McGuinness. But Campanu is a fiction – he appears peripherally in The last hundred days as a pathologist. McGuinness describes him as “a late middle aged heavy smoking Romanian with big sad eyes and a penchant for reading Ovid”. The fictional Campanu “reversing the absurd process by which [Romania’s] real dissident authors were edited out” (Guardian), gives McGuinness “new ways to be myself”. (In the YouTube video below McGuinness says he used the device of Campanu to show that not all east European poets wrote dissident verse – see for example Leaving do.)

In a further twist our narrator helps the debonair Sergiu Trofim, a sidelined luminary of the pre-Ceausescu days, to restore an uncensored version of his memoirs. Trofim dictates to his official transcriber, “a grey-faced buzzard with a socialist-realist scowl”, who saves the papers to a disk for ‘editing’. When they return for proofreading transformed the narrator rescues the deleted files from the recycle bin and prints them at the British Embassy library to be smuggled abroad, with the result that Trofim becomes a celebrity dissident. (A quick shoutout to the official publication’s ghostwriter: Hadrian ‘The Wall’ Vintile.)

Quoting Mallarmé’:

The world already exists. What’s the point of describing it? Our job is to understand the connections.

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