The Porcupine (Magill Book Reviews)
Julian Barnes’s latest book, a long story or brief novel, focuses on the events surrounding the trial of Stoyo Petkanov, the former dictator of an unnamed Eastern Bloc country (Bulgaria seems a likely model). Petkanov’s adversary is the newly appointed prosecutor and politically opportunistic Peter Solinsky. Theirs is a battle of wits, since the outcome of the trial is never in doubt, with Solinsky determined to expose the hypocrisies and corruption of the old system and Petkanov equally determined to expose the trial for what it is.
Solinsky begins confidently enough, but the wily Petkanov has destroyed all the incriminating evidence, and his rhetorical skills are more than equal to the drama of the televised trial. What emerges from their conflict is less a triumph for truth and freedom than a nagging uncertainty as to whether capitalism can even meet material needs of the country, let alone provide a spiritual dimension to replace the ideals of socialism. As Petkanov sarcastically claims, the West has only pornography and the religion of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck or the outdated rituals of an enfeebled Christianity to offer those who want both sausages and ideals.
This battle is paralleled by Solinsky’s rapidly disintegrating marriage. His wife Maria, daughter of an anti-fascist hero, has no use for the new regime and, by the end of the trial, no respect for her husband. Their passionless marriage, together with the country’s...
(The entire section is 491 words.)
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The Porcupine (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
At slightly fewer than fifty thousand words, Julian Barnes’s latest work falls into that no-man’s land of fiction, the long short story or brief novel known as the novella. It is the form of some of the best fiction of the twentieth century—Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), and Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915) come easily to mind—but it is a notoriously difficult hybrid. Lacking both the leisurely expansiveness of the novel and the pointed brevity of the short story, the novella often is dismissed as having the faults of both genres and the virtues of neither.
The action of the book consists of three simultaneous stories. The primary plot involves the contest of wits and ideologies between Stoyo Petkanov and Peter Solinsky. Solinsky, the new prosecutor general, is a former professor of law who opportunistically joined the opposition after a lifetime of party membership and now hopes to shine the light of truth upon the discredited regime and its fallen leader. As an intellectual, Solinsky unfortunately lacks the courtroom experience and killer instinct needed by a successful prosecutor. Attempting to get inside his opponent by understanding his psychology, Solinsky is at first baffled, then exasperated, and finally defeated by his more vigorous and wily opponent.
Paralleling this political and personal battle is the growing tension between Solinsky and his wife, Maria, who sees her husband’s...
(The entire section is 2029 words.)