Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy has been one of my reading highlights so far this year and is sure to make my Best of 2019 list.
Although I finished reading the trilogy in February, I have lagged in posting reviews of them.
I had already written about the first book in the trilogy called The Great Fortune.
The second book – The Spoilt City – takes off from where the first book ends.
Guy and Harriet Pringle are now settled in their flat in Bucharest. But they are not alone. Yakimov, who had installed himself in their flat in the first novel, is still living with them, a fact that irritates Harriet greatly.
The problem is that Guy whose basic nature revolves around befriending people is not inclined in giving him the boot, and when it comes down to it, Harriet realizes that she does not have the heart to do so either.
So Yakimov stays on. And his craving for rich food and drinks only gets more intense even as his finances deteriorate, and the political and economic environment in Bucharest starts getting worse.
Meanwhile, there is another guest who is installed in the Pringles’ flat. But he is in hiding, and even Yakimov is not aware of it at the time.
On a broader scale, Germany’s advance in Europe gains ground. Romania decides to ally itself, albeit reluctantly with the Germans. But it’s hardly hunky dory. A key Romanian region, Transylvania – is annexed by the Hungarians, and while Romania seethes, it still kowtows to Germany which rationalizes these developments saying it’s for the greater good.
Over the course of the novel, more such Romanian regions are annexed – all for a greater cause as highlighted by Germany. But it angers the Romanian people and so looking for someone to blame, increase their cries for the abdication of the King.
Against this political backdrop, the private lives of the Pringles and their friends and acquaintances play out.
As was the case in the first novel, the Pringles’ marriage continues to remain the centre of focus in the second book too.
As the war picks up pace and the scenario gets incredibly tense and uncertain, the position of the English people in the city becomes all the more precarious. Especially when the calls for the abdication of the King gather momentum – he was a King whom the British supported.
She began to think of England and their last sight of the looped white cliffs, the washed white and blue of the sky, the sea glittering and chopped by the wind. They should have been stirred by the sight, full of regrets, but they had turned their backs on it, excited by change and their coming life together. Guy had said they would return home for Christmas. Asked how they took life, they would have said: ‘any way it comes.’ Chance and uncertainty were part of it. The last thing she would have wanted for them was a settled life lived peaceably in one town. Now her attitude had changed. She had begun to long for safety.
At a time when many of the people begin to leave, Guy insists on staying on which frustrates Harriet. Guy is intent on keeping the summer school open even when the number of students attending his classes dwindles substantially.
There are many more points about Guy that continue to irritate Harriet, although by now she is used to his personality. Although Guy’s basic nature of gregariousness, accepting anyone into his circle does not really change, Harriet begins to view him in a different light, compared to how she looked upon their situation in the earlier novel.
She is beginning to get a hang of Guy’s motives and what drives him although she does not always necessarily agree with it. Guy continues to not give Harriet the attention that she expects as a married couple.
Becoming conditioned to Guy’s preoccupation, she was learning the resort of her own reflections. With him, in any case, talk was too general for intimacy. He despised the metaphysical and the personal. He did not gossip. She was beginning to believe that what he had lacked was a fundamental interest in the individual – a belief that would astonish him were she to accuse him. But she did not accuse him. Once she believed that finding him, she had found everything; now she was not so sure. But here they were wrecked together on the edge of Europe as on an island and she was learning to keep her thoughts to herself.
Towards the end, however, for once Guy decides to put Harriet’s interest above his when things in Bucharest reach a head and they have no choice but to evacuate.
Once again, Olivia Manning has done a marvelous job of depicting a city on the brink of a war, the great amount of uncertainty in people’s lives, and yet the belief that maybe, just maybe the war will not reach them. Not just its people, the city itself is decaying.
Rumania then had been sleek and prosperous, a land of plenty. Even this café, one of the cheapest, had given plates of olives, cheese and gherkins when one bought a glass of wine. Now those things were scarce. She seemed to remember the water, beneath its haze of heat, as translucent as crystal. Now it smelt of weed. The crusted surf round the café held captive floating bottles, orange-peel, match boxes and paper bags. As for the café itself, it reflected in its grayish weathered timbers, its crippled chairs, its dirty table papers, the decay of the whole country.
She’s also adept at highlighting the shifting loyalties during such times. For instance, in the first volume Harriet and Bella become good friends, at a time when Romania considered England its ally and the English were treated with respect in Bucharest.
That changes in the second novel. With the cry for the abdication of the King getting louder, the English who had supported the King, also find themselves at the receiving end. And this spills over to ordinary friendships too. Bella is now afraid of being seen pally with Harriet publicly. Harriet, intelligent and perceptive, is of course quick to adapt to this changed reality.
The same cannot be said for Yakimov though. Yakimov is naïve enough to assume that war has no impact on friendships forged before its outbreak. That particular section in the novel is quite harrowing when he turns to an old German friend for help, who is now a high ranked officer in the Nazi party. His meeting with him and the outcome thereafter, while riveting, was laced with dread.
In the meanwhile, some more English characters come into play including Professor Pinkrose, and as events in Bucharest begin to reach boiling point, things come to head forcing all the English including the Pringles into action.
All in all, Vol. 2 of The Balkan Trilogy was compelling and absorbing paving the way for events to unfold in the third volume.