In The Spoilt City; Olivia Manning continues the story of Guy and Harriet Pringle, Yakimov, Inchcape, Clarence Lawson and co that she began in The Great Fortune. Picking up where the previous novel ended, the city of Bucharest is increasingly a city beset with uncertainty – the so called phoney war is over, and German invasion seems a greater possibility than ever. Olivia Manning writes beautifully about the city of Bucharest in the summer of 1940.
“As the sunset threw its reds and purples across the sky, the waiting crowds grew restless. Time was passing. Those in the square had been mostly men of the working classes. With evening, women appeared, their light clothes glimmering in the twilight. The first breath of cool air brought the prosperous Rumanians out for the promenade. Though they walked from habit into the Calea Victoriei and the Boulevard Carol, they were drawn back again and again to the square, the centre of tension.
When Guy returned from the University, Harriet said they must eat quickly, then go out and discover what was happening.”
The position of English people appears to be more precarious than it was – and as some people begin to leave the Pringles stay on. Guy is determined to hang on to his job in the English department at the university – insisting he must wait to be reassigned and can’t just abandon his post. Harriet is more concerned about their position, and watches Guy holding on to a job that is daily becoming less and less required, with frustration. Guy’s students are dwindling in number and Harriet isn’t convinced, that the summer school, Guy is planning is a very good idea.
Yakimov – the glory of his appearance in Guy’s production of Troilus and Cressida fading – is still installed in the Pringle’s flat – much to Harriet’s irritation. As time goes on Yakimov is becoming more and more shameless in his constant pursuit of good food, money and something like a return to his former glory days. He thinks nothing of rummaging through Guy’s desk and removing something he thinks will make a good story and get him a couple of drinks bought in the English bar.
“In the small central drawer of the writing-desk he came on a sealed envelope marked ‘Top secret.’ This immediately excited him. He was not the only one inclined to suspect that Guy’s occupation in Bucharest was not as innocent as it seemed. Affable, sympathetic, easy to know, Guy would, in Yakimov’s opinion, make an ideal agent.
The flap of the envelope, imperfectly sealed, opened as he touched it. Inside was a diagram of a section through – what? A pipe or well. Having heard so much talk of sabotage in the English Bar, he guessed it was an oil well. A blockage in the pipe was marked ‘detonator’. Here was a simple exposition of how and where the amateur saboteur should place his gelignite.”
Yakimov is also ridiculously out of touch and naïve – asked to run a simple errand to Cluj – Yakimov decides to drop in on his old friend Fredi von Flugel – now a high-ranking Nazi – hoping only to benefit from his generous hospitality – thinking nothing will have changed between them.
Rumania has allied itself strongly with Germany in a bid to prevent German aggression – sacrificing some Transylvanian territory in the process. Soon there are Germans all over Bucharest – propping up the English bar and swaggering through the streets. Harriet’s friend Bella – married to a Rumanian, who speaks good German, claims to feel great comfort in the presence of their new allies – a stabilising community in a city rife with rumour and dissension. Harriet suspects her attitude to be one brought about by fear – a necessary bit of self-preservation in frightening times. Revolution is in the air, there are demonstrations against the king – who had been reigning as a dictator, and is finally forced to abdicate.
In the Great Fortune, Drucker a wealthy, Jewish banker was arrested and imprisoned, his son Sasha a student of Guy’s disappeared with his stepmother and the city has been rife with rumour about his whereabouts ever since. One day Guy and Harriet run into Sasha – though he looks nothing like he did. Guy says Sasha can stay with them, though with Yakimov still in the spare room, the only place he can sleep in some small servants’ rooms on the roof. Sasha manages to charm the Pringles servant Despina who delights in feeding him and keeping him company in the kitchen when the flat is empty – but Harriet is worried about what might happen if Yakimov becomes aware of Sasha’s presence – Yakimov is horribly indiscreet.
Things are becoming more frightening, there is news of people being attacked in the street – and more and more people are wondering about leaving. The Pringles realise that Yakimov has simply taken himself off – and they need to find a way of getting Sasha out of Rumania alive. In the midst of all this uncertainty and chaos Inchcape decides to invite Professor Pinkrose to Bucharest to give a lecture – inexplicably given the turmoil across Europe, Pinkrose travelled thousands of miles, expecting a rather more rapturous reception than that which he receives. Inchcape is attacked, and Guy persuades Harriet (finally thinking of her before everyone else) to leave for Athens and wait for him to join her.
In this second book of the Balkan trilogy Olivia Manning again brings to life the atmosphere of a city at war. It was a world she well knew; having lived there with her husband, a lecturer – arriving in Bucharest the very day that Britain declared war on Germany. There is much more drama and action in this novel, it is enormously compelling, and I can’t wait for Friends and Heroes; volume three – after which I shall no doubt immediately go on to The Levant Trilogy.