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Friends and Heroes by Olivia Manning
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Following on from the events in the previous novel, Harriet Pringle is newly arrived in Athens, her husband Guy has stayed behind in Bucharest. Rumania – where the Pringles have been living since their marriage at the start of the war is under German occupation, and most of the ex-pat community have left or are in the process of leaving. Harriet is in a fever of anticipation waiting for Guy to arrive in Athens. Yakimov, and his sable lined greatcoat is already in Athens, and despite previously having disliked him Harriet has become much fonder of him, and it is Yakimov who first brings Harriet news of Guy.

Guy arrives in Athens much to Harriet’s relief – who is eager for them to visit the Parthenon together – but in typical Guy fashion he wants to immediately find himself something to do. Always rushing about somewhere – although not always where Harriet wants to rush off to – Guy can’t easily sit still.

“At breakfast, on his first morning in Athens, Guy said: I must see the Director and get myself a job. Have you discovered anything about him?’
‘Only that he is called Gracey. Yakimov doesn’t know him and I was too worried to think of anything like that.’
‘We’ll go to the Organization,’ Guy said, ‘We’ll report our arrival and ask for an interview with Gracey.’
‘Yes, but not this morning, our first morning here. I thought we could go and see the Parthenon.’
‘The Parthenon!’ Guy was astonished by the suggestion but realizing that the excursion was important to her, he promised: ‘We will go, but not today. For one thing, there wouldn’t be time.’
‘I thought of it as a celebration of your arrival. I wanted it to be the first thing we did together.’ Guy had to laugh, ‘Surely there’s no hurry? The Parthenon’s been there for two thousand years and it’ll be there tomorrow. It may even be there next week?”

Guy is an academic employed what is always referred to as the organization – which I can’t help but think makes it sound rather more shadowy than it is. In Bucharest Guy held a prominent position in the English department of the University. Now Guy fully expects to be able to walk into a similar position in Athens, the organisation is responsible for the staffing here too – but Guy was never meant to end up in Athens – his original posting was going to be Egypt – and two former colleagues Toby Lush and Dubedat, who Guy had upset in Bucharest are now happily installed in Athens. They are working for director Gracey, who is off sick, and Toby and Dubedat are rather enjoying having the chance to do things that Guy wouldn’t allow them to when they worked for him. Harriet is furious that Guy isn’t being given the opportunity he should, Guy is more philosophical about it.

Though the peace that Guy and Harriet think they have found in Athens is destined to be short lived, and soon the war which is raging across Europe creeps ever close to their door. They live at first in cramped conditions in an hotel, but Harriet is keen they should have their own home. They move, in time to a small, isolated house which comes with an elderly servant who speaks no English.

With possible invasion a daily concern, the city rife with rumour – it is remarkable how much jealous professional manoeuvring goes on between Guy, Toby, Dubedat, Gracey, Professor Pinkrose and their newer acquaintances Ben Phipps and Archie Callard. As Guy and Harriet get to know the ex-pat community of Athens they realise that Gracey – who certainly has his critics – is mostly concerned with getting himself on the next boat in the role of an invalid. Once Gracey has left – the directorship will be up for grabs and then Guy could very well get his chance. One of the key figures in the ex-pat community is Mrs Brett – who has a particular loathing of Gracey – she seems keen to help Guy.

Guy is soon occupied again, and shows us he has learned nothing. Again, just as he did in Bucharest, Guy throws himself into another project. In Bucharest is was a production of Troilus and Cressida – in Athens it is a revue – the result of course is the same. Guy spending hours and hours away from his young wife, wrapped up completely in preparing the revue – Harriet feels his absence keenly. When Harriet hears a British film is to be shown to members of the ex-pat community – an event which warrants a party, dressing up, food etc – she is childishly excited, having looked forward to it, in full expectation of attending it with Guy, she is devastated when Guy says he is too busy to attend. She refuses to go alone, but her disappointment in a missed treat is palpable. There are signs here that the Pringle marriage could be in trouble, Harriet loves Guy, but they have their differences and Guy seems to think Harriet has less need of his presence than she actually does, and seems happier when doing his own thing. The war is getting closer to Athens, Italy invades, although the Greeks do a good job of pushing them back, there is an unsettled tension in the air, a feeling among some that they are practically sitting ducks. Charles Warden is a handsome young officer, temporarily stationed in Athens before being sent elsewhere – he and Harriet are obviously attracted to one another, and spend a little time together, before Guy even senses there might be a danger here.

“With faces lit by the café lights people could recognize one another, and Guy and Harriet, stopping or being stopped by acquaintances were told that the Thermopylae defence was breaking. The Germans could arrive that very night. What was there to stop them? And the retreat went on. The main roads were noisy with the returning lorries. At times, passing through patches of light, they could be seen muddy as farm carts, with the men heaped together, asleep or staring listlessly at the crowds.”

Danger of another kind though is looming, and despite the best efforts of the Greek forces, the time comes when the Pringles and all their friends must try to get out of Athens. The problem, however seems to be a lack of ships.

As ever, Olivia Manning portrays a capital in the midst of war to perfection, her ability to capture the different personalities of the ex-pat community – thrown together during extraordinary times is especially superb. ( )
  Heaven-Ali | May 29, 2017 |
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Bucharest has fallen, and Harriet and Guy Pringle have escaped to Athens in the nick of time to find several of their old acquaintances there already. But even Guy's eternal optimism fails him when he realises that his former employees feel no gratitude or loyalty to him. Guy and Harriet both come to realise that with Greece threatened by the Axis Powers, Athens is not the safe harbour they thought. This is the third and final part of 'The Balkan Trilogy', which began with 'The Great Fortune' and was followed by 'The Spoilt City' - container.… (more)

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