by Olivia Manning
Guy and Harriet Pringle are still trying to stick things out in WWII Bucharest for most of the dramatic second act of Olivia Manning's The Balkan Trilogy--to my mind, simultaneously a less showy but a more addictive read than its predecessor in terms of writing and plot--but the inexorability of events in The Spoilt City makes it abundantly clear that that will only be a matter of time: "Stay, and you will see a country die" warns one character with a healthy dose of gallows humor and even more predictive precision (314). In sketching Romania's fall at the hands of first the amateur homegrown fascists and later the pros from Nazi Germany, Manning is deft at portraying the changing fortunes of major and minor characters alike as well as the futility of the situation more generally--Harriet, musing about the Drucker trial in which a wealthy and formerly well-connected Jew is imprisoned on trumped-up charges as a way for the state to rob him of his assets, here resignedly observes that "no one doubted the innocence of this friendless man, but that factor did not bear discussion. No one could help him. He was a victim of the times" (381). Elsewhere, the significance of being a victim of the times is also brought home to gregarious British expat Yakimov when, on a fact-finding visit to Cluj, he hears from "an important-looking Jew" that a two-year old Romanian passport is now just "a ticket to a concentration camp" and then is told by an old German acquaintance of his that the time for westerners to flee the country is now. Right now. But to where? "Europe is finished for you, of course. North Africa will go next. Perhaps to India. It will be some time before we get there" (426 & 438). The point, belabored as it may be in my telling of it, is that Manning's novel would seem to have no right to be as entertaining as it is even without the world at war momentum swing midway through The Spoilt City in which we learn that "the blitz on London has begun," "suicides were occurring daily" and German officers in Bucharest were beginning to be hailed by the locals as "these conquerors of the world" all in less than 25 pages of high adrenaline prose (467, 474 & 491). How Manning arrived at her storytelling achievement, in that light at least, is a bit of a mystery to me.