The Spoilt City (Vol. 2 of The Balkan Trilogy) – Olivia Manning

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.

Balkan 2

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.

The Spoilt City







Bottled Goods – Sophie van Llewyn

Bottled Goods first came to my attention when it was shortlisted for the 2019 Republic of Consciousness Prize, which has been set up to reward books published by small, independent publishers. Subsequently, it has been longlisted for the 2019 Women’s Prize for fiction.

The author Sophie van Llewyn was born in Romania and now lives in Germany. And this is her debut long fiction work.

The book had already garnered a lot of positive reviews. Wondering what the fuss was all about, and intrigued by the premise of flash fiction, I decided to try it out.

Bottled Goods

This is how the Novella-in-Flash is described on the author’s blog:

A novella-in-flash is a novella that consists of independent flash fictions (that is, self-contained stories ranging from 5 to 1,000 words), that function as ‘chapters.’ They are linked, forming a longer story. Think of them as brushstrokes, each of them a touch of colour in themselves — but all in all forming a ‘bigger picture’.

It’s a technique that has worked brilliantly for Bottled Goods.

The book is set in Bucharest in Romania in the 1970s when it was under Soviet rule. The central character is Alina, a teacher in a city school. Alina comes from a wealthy family, and her aunt (her mother’s sister) is married to a top government official, allowing her certain privileges.

Here is how it opens…

When Aunt Theresa calls, I’m doing my homework on the History of Socialism.

‘Alina? Is your mother at home?’ she asks.

‘No,’ I say. ‘She’s working the late shift this week. She won’t be home until eight.’

‘Good. I’ll pick you up in half an hour. Wear something black and sturdy shoes.’ And she hangs up before I have the chance to argue.

From the outset it is clear that the relationship between mother and aunt are strained. However, Alina gets along very well with her aunt and many a time turns to her for help.

Meanwhile, Alina goes on to marry Liviu, a man below her when it comes to class. It’s something that Alina’s mother greatly resents and provides the first hint of a discord between mother and daughter.

I mentioned at the beginning that Alina is a central character in these flash fictions, but the same could also be said about the city of Bucharest.

Little by little the terrors of living under Soviet rule become apparent to us – how it has created an environment of distrust, suspicion and aloofness. Ratting out on your neighbours and acquaintances to the authorities is common, perpetuating a constant state of fear and anxiety.

A certain incident in the school involving a couple of girls also puts the spotlight on Alina, and consequently she begins to get hounded by the authorities on this.

Things reach such a head that it begins to take a toll on Alina and Liviu’s marriage. To save it, they begin to hatch a plan of escaping Bucharest altogether.

There is one section related to this that is particularly harrowing – when both are detained at the Border by the Soviet authorities.

‘No! No! I wasn’t praying! I was just tired.’

The man grinds his teeth, then pushes me into the metal table. It screeches as I collide with it. There’s a sharp pain in my hip.

‘Body search,’ he says.

He turns me around, pushes me harder into the table with his knee. Its corner pierces my stomach. I wail. He catches the nape of my neck, squeezes hard. ‘Shut up!’

His hands move up and down my body, tear my shirt open. The callused tips of his fingers are on my waist, on my breasts, on my legs. He rips my nylon pantyhose.

‘You’re tired, hey? I’ll show you tired!’

Alina does have Aunt Theresa to turn to. Of course Alina is banking on her aunt’s elevated position to help her in her troubles, but the aunt is also a great believer in superstitions, magic and Romanian folklore preferring to rely on them when attempting to advise Alina.

You’d think that the rain has come, a fearful storm, if you listened to the claps of the hands, the snap of fingers, the wooden spoons drumming into cauldrons, but the dust, this dry dust rises to my thighs, barely licking my belly, an indecent lover aroused by the fact that the entire village is watching us, singing:

Paparuda, ruda,

Vino de na uda-

And they sing faster, faster, faster, and my feet are spinning, and I have no power over them as I leap and jump…

Besides the relationship between Alina and Liviu, the other central focus of the novel is Alina’s relationship with her mother.

It’s a difficult relationship that causes great turmoil to Alina. The mother jumps at whatever chance she gets to berate Alina, and yet cannot do without her company. As the novel progresses, certain events develop which set Alina completely against her mother. And yet, when she decides to deal with the situation in a certain way, she is racked by feelings of tremendous guilt.

Will Alina and Liviu’s relationship survive these trials and tribulations? Will Alina and her mother make amends?

Bottled Goods is a wonderful story told in a unique style. The flash fiction format works very well and the author has used this medium to tell her tale in myriad ways. Sometimes, the narrative is in the first person – told by Alina, in other pieces the tale is told in the third person. Some other flash pieces comprise diary entries, lists, tables and Romanian folklore making for a wonderful reading experience.

The impact of folklore in the lives of Rumanian people is also dominant in the novel. Romanians are great believers – the older generation especially – in superstitions, and rituals, and even in the mysterious figure called Saint Friday.

There are a dozen of them in the clearing, ghostly silhouettes in their white skirts and shirts, with their embroidered vests and necklaces made of golden coins, or at least so it seems from the bush where Alina is hiding.

Forgotten are their dances, the hops, the swings in their hips, the circles they draw with their toes, their twirls and whirls. They gather in a circle and begin spinning, faster, faster, faster, until their very contours fade and the clearing seems an impressionistic picture of itself with the ghostly essence of the Sanziene slipping from them and imbibing the woods, the grass, the creek.

This suffuses the novel with an enchanting, fairy-tale like feel. In fact, in a major plot development, elements of magical realism are introduced but because of the force of the narrative and doses of folklore already sprinkled upon us earlier, it does not seem jarring, in fact it becomes quite believable.

In a way, all of this – the folklore, the magic realism – in their own way help in blunting the horror of Communism and Soviet rule, which probably in a straightforward narrative would have been hard to digest.

The Great Fortune (Vol. 1 of The Balkan Trilogy) – Olivia Manning

I began this year reading novels by British women writers of the early 20th century. Olivia Manning was an author I had been meaning to read for some time. I dithered over whether I should commit to her two trilogies (Balkan and Levant) or opt for her standalone novels. Since her trilogies have gotten such rave reviews, it finally seemed like a no-brainer, and what a tremendous decision that turned out to be.

Balkkan Trilogy
NYRB Classics Edition

The blurb of the NYRB Classics edition states thus:

The Balkan Trilogy is the story of a marriage and of a war, a vast, teeming and complex masterpiece in which Olivia manning brings the uncertainty and adventure of civilian existence under political and military siege to vibrant life.

And what an incredible story it is.

The focus of this review is on the first book in the trilogy – The Great Fortune.

When the book opens, it is 1939, a few weeks after Germany has invaded Poland and England has declared war on Germany. Guy Pringle and his wife Harriet are on their way to Bucharest in Romania, where Guy is to resume his position as a lecturer in the university.

Guy and Harriet are newlyweds but could not be more different. Guy is gregarious, loves being surrounded by people and can easily befriend anyone. Harriet is introverted and does not crave company as much as Guy does.

As it was, she had, in all innocence, been prepared to possess him and to be possessed, to envelop and to be enveloped, in a relationship that excluded the enemy world. She soon discovered that Guy was not playing his part. Through him, the world was not only admitted, it was welcomed; and, somehow, when he approached it, the enmity was no longer there.

Once in Romania, we are introduced to more characters in the English expat community. There is Professor Inchcape to whom Guy reports. Another one is Clarence Lawson who has been sent there by the British Council, and who takes an interest in Harriet.

And then there’s Prince Yakimov, a faded aristocrat, who having been part of a wealthy and elite social circle in those glory days, is now reduced to near poverty.

That’s the first thing that you notice in The Great Fortune. It’s a book that teems with people, some important like the ones mentioned above, others not so.

There are essentially two elements in this first novel that Olivia Manning expertly brings to life.

The first is the city of Bucharest in an environment where invasion and impending war always seems close at hand and yet far.

There is a superb set piece in the novel where Guy and Harriet are invited for lunch to the sumptuous home of a wealthy Jewish family headed by Emanuel Drucker, a banker. Drucker’s son Sasha is Guy’s pupil.

It’s particularly striking for the misguided sense of security that Drucker and his family feel; the certainty with which they convey that war will not touch them, when the very nature of war means heightened uncertainty. Large part of this false hope comes from the belief that wealth and important connections will protect them.

In a conciliatory way, Guy said: “They say there will be financial collapse in Germany soon. That might shorten the war.” He looked round for applause and met only shocked alarm.

Doamna Flohr, moving anxiously in her seat, cried: “It would be terrible, such a collapse! It would ruin us.”

Drucker, lifting his head tortoise-fashion out of his silence, said: “That is a rumour put around by the British. There will be no collapse.” This firm assurance brought immediate calm.

Drucker, noticing her (Harriet’s) look, said quietly: “It is true our business is much dependent on German prosperity. But we made our connections long ago. We do not love the Germans any more than you, but we did not cause the war. We must live.”

Doamna Hassolel broke in aggressively. “A banker,” she said, “upholds the existing order. He is an important man. He has the country behind him.”

“Supposing the order ceases to exist?” said Harriet. “Supposing the Nazis come here?”

It’s not just the Druckers.

The people of Romania are aware of Germany’s advance as it captures territories in Europe but somehow feel it has nothing to do with them, that they will be spared.

The citizens of Bucharest, cooped up in cafes, watching the downpour, passed round rumours of invasion. A reconnaissance plane was said to have sighted troops crossing the Dniester. Refugees were streaming towards the Pruth. Detailed descriptions were given of atrocities committed by Russian troops on Rumanian and German minorities. People went fearful to bed and rose to find everything much as they had left it. The rumours of yesterday were denied, but repeated the day after.

The second element that Manning wonderfully conveys is the story of Guy and Harriet’s marriage.

Guy’s readiness to befriend anyone and constantly seek company shocks and unsettles Harriet as she struggles to adapt to her new life. She also has other challenges to deal with. There’s the Romanian beauty Sophie, who has designs on marrying Guy and securing a British passport, and thus resents Harriet. And then there is Clarence, Guy’s colleague, who is interested in Harriet, and whose expectations Harriet must manage.

Because of the estrangement, she saw him (Guy) newly again: a comfortable-looking man of an unharming largeness of body and mind. His size gave her an illusion of security – for it was, she was coming to believe, no more than an illusion. He was one of those harbours that prove to be too shallow: there was no getting into it. For him, personal relationships were incidental. His fulfillment came from the outside world.

Clarence, meanwhile, had been talking to her….As he stared at her, resentful of her inattention, she knew he was one who, given a chance, would shut her off into a private world. What was it they both wanted? Exclusive attention, no doubt: the attention each had missed in childhood. Perversely, she did not want it now it was offered. She was drawn to Guy’s gregarious good humour and the open world about him.

To this reader, Harriet came across as an intelligent, spiky woman capable of standing up on her own with flaws that seemed acceptable considering what she had to put up with.

Guy, on the other hand, came across as infuriating most of the time. While he is shown to be a generous man with principles and a ready willingness to help anyone who asks for it, he fails as a husband to Harriet, taking the marriage for granted, and not really making an attempt to understand her needs, and being there for her when she wants him to.

Manning has also created a wonderful and original character in Prince Yakimov. After a wealthy and easy life pre-war teeming with soirees and friends, he is now reduced to a state where his sole expensive possession – his sable coat – is gradually wearing and fading just as his fortunes are. Yakimov is also constantly in need of money to whet his craving for rich food. He thinks nothing of borrowing money from whoever is willing to lend it to him and not repaying it in time, citing delay in getting his remittance.

Meanwhile, there is a lot that happens in the novel – the Romanian Prime Minister is assassinated, the fate of the Drucker family is sealed, Bucharest struggles in an unusually freezing winter, and Guy Pringle stages a play in the finale of this book.

In the winter section of the novel, Manning’s language brims with lush imagery and the sleigh-ride that Harriet takes with Guy and Clarence over the icy landscape particularly stands out.

They slid down the bank to the lake, that was a plate of ice sunk into the billowing fields, and the wind howled over their heads.

“Lovely, lovely,” Harriet tried to shout, but she was scarcely able to breathe. Her ears sang, her eyes streamed, her hands and her feet ached. Her cheeks were turned to ice.

Overall, The Great Fortune (the first volume in The Balkan Trilogy) is a rich, riveting and absorbing story of everyday life as the likelihood of invasion looms large. Manning’s creation of atmosphere – the growing uncertainty and dread – in a country on the brink of war is spot on.

She also does a wonderful job evoking café life where both the local Romanians and the well-to-do British expat community gather to discuss politics and the possibility of war reaching them and to dissect rumours, denying or accepting them. It particularly reminded me of my parents’ stories, of the life they led in Tehran, Iran as newlyweds among similar expats, and how they frequently gathered in cafes to discuss the political situation in Iran and the ever present threat of the Iranian Revolution.

As I write this piece, I have already read the next two volumes in The Balkan Trilogy and I can tell you that it only gets better.

The Great Fortune
Random House Edition