Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

July Books 3) The Balkan Trilogy

3) The Balkan Trilogy - The Great Fortune, The Spoilt City and Friends and Heroes, by Olivia Manning

The first installment of Manning's books about the second world war. In book 1, Harriet Pringle, recently married to her husband who works for the British Council, arrives in Bucharest just as the second world war is breaking out around them. The book finishes with the fall of Paris. In the second book, Romania gradually crumbles into the German sphere of incluence. In the third, the Pringles have made it to Greece, which also falls to the Germans at the end, though they have escaped to Egypt. The story is heavily autobiographical.

I really enjoyed the first two books. I don't know Romania particularly well (my grandmother knew it better) but the whole mentality seemed very familiar from my Bosnia days and from my subsequent experiences of other former Ottoman territories. There were several aspects of the story that I felt very familiar with: the personalities and quirks of the small expat community, the total uncertainty of what is going on will happen next - I remember one night in 1997 when I was living in Bosnia, driving home late from the office I unexpectdly came across a column of British tanks; when I turned on the radio to listen to the BBC world service I found out that they were moving in to occupy the police stations in the town.

And the relationship between the Pringles is delicately, almost painfully observed. When I persuaded Anne to come out to join me in Bosnia, we had at least been married for three years and had known each other for nine (and it was by then a former rather than future war zone, at least I hope so); Harriet Pringle's leap of faith, moving to a Romania with a husband she barely knows, is almost incomprehensible, and her difficulties therefore seem a bit self-inflicted, though at the same time her husband's behaviour is rather self-obsessed.

The last of the three books, chronicling their time in Greece, is rather different, and a bit disappointing (which is rather similar to my time in Croatia, the last third of my own Balkan experience in 1997-98). Greece was and is of course much more integrated with Western Europe than Romania, but it's a country I don't know particularly, so I found the setting more unfamiliar. Harriet's long drawn-out dalliance with a potential lover is I suppose understandable but I found it a bit frustrating that they took so long to get to the point. And the casual disposal of Prince Yakimov, one of the more attractive characters from the series, was a bit sad.

I never caught the 1987 BBC miniseries based on Olivia Manning's books, but knowing that it was made allowed me to imagine how bad Ken and Em would be in the title roles. To my delight, the one character who really ought to be played by Alan Bennett, Professor Lord Pinkrose, actually was played by Alan Bennett. I'll look out for the DVD, but second-hand, I think.

Summary: enjoyed the first two books, less so the third.
Tags: bookblog 2005, romania, world: greece

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