The map below shows the territories that Romania was forced to concede June-September 1940 to Russia, Hungary and Bulgaria.
Romania wasn’t even at war, but it was a pawn while Hitler kept the peace in the East while he was fighting Britain in the West. Romania was also being milked with a regular supply of oil and agricultural products being shipped out to Germany to support the German war effort.
How did this impact on the lives of the citizens of Bucharest? Those days are depicted in The Spoilt City – the 2nd volume of Olivia Manning’s Balkans Trilogy. Food becomes scarcer; meatless days increase; the Iron Guard, the fascists, are in the ascendant and making their presence felt on the streets. Opponents and Jews are imprisoned and/or beaten up; German officers and swastikas become highly visible, and the British Legation, if not with its head completely in the sand, is determined to stick it out. Because Romania loves the British, nothing bad will happen ….
Which means that Guy Pringle must continue to teach at the Summer School, even as his Jewish students disappear. His wife, Harriet, although more anxious than Guy, has decided that she will not leave without him. Yes, he is still driving her crazy with his philanthropy which ups the ante in an already precarious situation. Suddenly Harriet finds herself providing refuge to a Jewish-Romanian army deserter, as well as continuing to suffer the freeloading antics of “poor old Yaki”. Unexpectedly she starts to develop feelings of responsibility towards the young lad. It’s Harriet who worries about what will happen to Sasha when they leave – she knows this is inevitable even as Guy continues in denial – and it is she who undertakes to get him false documentation.
The Spoilt City reflects the uncertainty, confusion and turmoil of those days, tone and atmosphere darkening with each chapter, particularly after the abdication of the king. But then there is the sudden arrival of Professor Pinkrose who has been invited by Guy’s boss to give a English literature lecture at the university. Now why invite someone in these circumstances? Why accept and undertake a hair-raising journey across war-torn Europe? Is this pluck or stupidity? Pinkrose isn’t the most amenable of characters and he is most put-out when Romanian princesses fail to attend the reception in his honour. They go across the road to the German reception instead! Unfortunately for Pinkrose this is just the start of the indignities he must endure …
These are dangerous times. The Germans are gearing up for full-blown occupation, and the Gestapo have a list of British names. Guy Pringle’s name is on it. When others on the list are beaten (or worse) on the streets, Guy gets serious and persuades Harriet to leave with the mission of finding him a job to come to, once she reaches safety. (Thereby showing some insight into her character – that she needs to feel useful – proving he’s not quite as oblivious as Harriet and possibly the reader takes him to be.)
Volume 2 ends just as Harriet reaches Athens and a communications blackout descends upon Bucharest. She is beside herself with worry for Guy (despite their marriage being anything other than a meeting of soulmates). Unexpectedly she stumbles across Yakimov. Fortunately she is not aware of a great perfidy on his part (one which puts Guy in even greater danger) and he provides a measure of comfort in her hour of need. Whether she can trust him? I have no idea, but I don’t. Yet knowing the fondness most readers express towards the waste of space (my words) of “poor old Yaki” (his words) can I assume that he redeems himself in part 3?