Friday, June 29, 2007

Balkan Trilogy

You know you've read a good book when you practically go into mourning when you finish it. In this case, it wasn't a book but a trilogy—The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning. Not only that, there's a second trilogy about the same people called the Levant Trilogy. Whee! As if that weren't enough, I discovered that BBC did a miniseries of all six books called Fortunes of War, starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh.
The three books of the Balkan Trilogy were written in the 1960s and are titled The Great Fortune, The Spoiled City, and Friends and Heroes. Autobiographical, they tell the story of Guy and Harriet Pringle who live in Bucharest at the beginning of WWII. Guy teaches English and he and Harriet are newlyweds.
It's interesting to read about pre-communist Romania. I've not given the country much thought beyond its gymnastics team, Count Dracula and Ceaucescu's severed head. Who knew Bucharest once styled itself the “Paris of the East?” Manning does a superb job of setting a sense of place. There are the cafes and restaurants, the remains of Biedermeier buildings in the midst of being destroyed by the corrupt King Carol II, the poorly built modern apartment blocks, the beggars, the peasants who live in misery, the buttoned-up Romanian middle class, the plethora of princes and princesses, the abundant food. At the beginning of the war, Romania had the best food in Europe, something the Nazis were quick to appropriate for themselves.
The political situation is tricky. At the beginning of the war—and all my knowledge comes from the novels—Romania was neutral yet loosely allied with Great Britain, which was to protect the Romanians from the Germans. Later, feelings shift as Romanians decide it might be far worse to be invaded by Russia than by Germany, depose their own king and practically put down a welcome mat for the Nazis. The end of the second novel has Guy in danger of kidnap by the Gestapo and Harriet fleeing to Athens. The third novel has them together in Athens, where once again they have to flee to North Africa, one step ahead of the Nazis. At the beginning of the first novel, they are comfortable, employed, middle class. By the end of the third they are refugees, and even toilet paper is something to be treasured. On the ship out of Athens, a friend raids a cabin and gives three squares to each lady: “One up, one down, and one polisher.”
This is also the story of Guy's and Harriet's marriage, particularly Harriet's experience being married to a man of enormous charisma. Guy's magnetism puts a strain on their marriage.
There are many interesting characters, particularly Prince Yakimov: half Russian, half Irish, known for his funny bon mots and his mooching. The books are funny too, in a way, although many of the funny lines have a “you had to be there” quality.
Some reviewers found the books boring and complain of a lack of plot. It's true, there's not much plot, but I did not find these books boring.
I've seen a bit of the BBC miniseries and all I can say at this point is that the guy who plays Yakimov all wrong.

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