martes, 5 de marzo de 2019

The Balkan Trilogy: 1, The Great Fortune

The Balkan Trilogy: 1, The Great Fortune (NYRB Classics, 2010)
by Olivia Manning
England, 1960

"All I have is here," newlywed Harriet Pringle says of British expat life with her husband Guy, stateless freeloader Yakimov, and assorted displaced malcontents in faraway Bucharest, a problem since the storm clouds of what will soon become World War II are increasingly threatening the then neutral Romania with just what it means to be "a peaceful nation in someone else's war" (267 & 235).  That heavy duty geopolitical backdrop notwithstanding, I really enjoyed this first foray into Manning's The Balkan Trilogy and the first of six volumes in her Fortunes of War double trilogy.  On the most superficial level, I was pleased to discover that Manning's something of a Muriel Spark-like savage charmer on the observational front--perceptive in painting sympathetic but conflicted Harriet into something of a haves and have nots corner during an early run-in with some child beggars ("The children clung like lice.  They caught hold of her arms, their faces screwed into the classical mask of misery while they whined and whimpered in chorus" [122]) but also completely unremorseful in alluding to a poverty-stricken local dressmaker as "a tiny creature, very thin, smelling of mouldy bread.  Her face, which had one cheek full and one caught-in like a deformed apple, was dark yellow and heavily moustached" out of sheer descriptive malice elsewhere (262).  More significantly,  although somewhat related to this, I appreciated the fact that Manning's a bit of a slippery character when it comes to narrative POV.  If it wasn't always clear to me how much those sort of class-conscious sentiments were hers rather than her roman à clef characters', I'm willing to chalk that up to nuance in a novel which grapples with condescension to the Romanians on the part of the international community and the prejudice of the rich against the poor among all but one or two of the more idealistic characters regardless of nationality.  One of The Great Fortune's successes or at least one of the more ironic examples of Manning's sleight of hand, in fact, is how long the novel seems to side with the expat community in focusing on its fear about "the disintegration of their adopted world" (259) even while the disintegration of that same world has been hiding in plain sight all along for the Jews who have been hauled into jail on trumped-up charges and the poor freezing to death in bunches every time winter rolls around.  In short, a lively, fast-paced read but also "a cheap holiday in other people's misery" as some other blokes might have it.

Olivia Manning (1908-1980) in 1955

6 comentarios:

  1. A wonderful book (as is the sequel, the Levant Trilogy); I've read it twice and my wife is on her second read. I highly recommend the 1987 BBC adaptation, Fortunes of War, starring the impossibly young Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. Poor Yaki!

    1. Another in a long line of people w/book tastes I trust raving about these novels! Thanks so much for the recommendation of the BBC adaptation--sounds like something I'd also enjoy. Cheers!

  2. We watched the BBC adaption two (?) years ago, and it was great. I liked it so much that I ran out and bought the books. I haven't gotten around to reading them yet, but honestly, I will.

    Yakimov is a great character. A sort of 20th-century Skimpole.

  3. That BBC adaptation is moving up on my wishlist. Curiously or not, the Yakimov/Skimpole parallels never occurred to me even though they seem rather obvious now. How interesting--must keep an eye on that in the follow-up(s)!

  4. The Balkans are on my shelves, just waiting to be read - hopefully later this year depending on how the rest of my reading goes. Manning is so good at capturing the cultural 'feel' of a place - at least that's my impression based on her other books, particularly School for Love and The Doves of Venus.

  5. Bucharest gets a complex, nuanced portrait here, Jacqui, but one of the things that most surprised me about Manning in this volume was less that sense of place than that she'd managed to write a page-turner which was simultaneously grim in spots. She's a very sneaky writer in that regard, but you may already know that from your previous experience with her. Cheers!