Reviewed by Kathryn Grimshaw and Leigh Infield
The winds of war rushing fiercely across troubled Europe in the late 1930s are the setting for Olivia Manning’s vibrant semi-autobiographical novel, The Balkan Trilogy, originally three books now combined in one volume. Just before the outset of the war, the author Olivia Manning, then a young girl in her twenties, married R. D. Smith, a British Council Lecturer, and went abroad with her new husband to Bucharest. Her experiences there form the basis of this book.
The Balkan Trilogy is the compelling story of a young British couple caught in southeastern Europe on the precipice of WW II. We are introduced to Guy and Harriet Pringle on the train to Bucharest. Guy, a British Council Lecturer (like the author’s own husband), has brought his wife to Romania in an attempt to impart British culture to increasingly jittery European students. The Balkans were a crucial, but deeply vulnerable, region of Europe at the time. Prime Minister Winston Churchill recognized the urgency of aiding this region in its struggle for democracy and self-determination. It was a difficult struggle.
The train was forced to make many unscheduled stops due to the confusion brought on by the war. At one stop, Harriet looks out and spots a young couple making love between the girders that hold an upper rail. She muses, “Anything can happen.” It is a prophetic statement that sets the tone for the story that unfolds.
Essential in Manning’s book is the account of a young marriage—both individuals immature, head-strong, and with very different pictures of life’s work and pleasures. Harriet looked forward to a quiet existence in scholarly surroundings. Instead, she was thrust into an uncertain life in a foreign country, whose language and customs were new to her. Harriet was acutely conscious of a world war at her heels.
Guy, on the other hand, was engrossed in producing a Shakespearean play with make-do actors in penniless circumstances. His generosity of spirit in helping others—and there were always so many of them—frustrated his wife’s more pragmatic attitude. Guy saw the times as a challenging experiment in political social science, while his wife was consumed in securing adequate food, shelter and transportation.
Manning effortlessly interweaves the rich historical background with the personal lives of not only the Pringles, but of a wide variety of friends and strangers. The uneasiness of the time is all pervasive. Futures cannot be predicted, even life itself is in doubt. Against this background, we meet many characters, each one of whom is worthy of his own more complete story. The reader sees these people disappear from the scene with regret.
The Pringles live in an unraveling Bucharest until the Germans arrive in Romania, at which time they flee to Athens at the last moment. When the Germans occupy Greece, they flee again—this time to Cairo, where the book ends. Olivia Manning and her husband returned to London in 1946.
In this atmosphere, where the necessity for flight was ever imminent, the