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 political conversion as foolish. Daughter of a former anti-Fascist hero, she has been instrumental in saving Solinsky from sharing the downfall of his father. A pragmatist, she sees no contradiction between Communism and the favored treatment party members receive, nor between the purge and posthumous rehabilitation of her father, who was executed as a counterrevolutionary by the Communists but has been restored recently to favor. By the end of the novel, she neither loves nor respects her husband and hence asks for a divorce.
The small cast of characters is rounded out by three young men—Atanas, Stefan, and Dimiter—and a young woman—Vera—who were active in the overthrow of Communism and who expect Petkanov’s trial to reveal the greed, brutality, and corruption of the Communists. They are joined, unwillingly, by Stefan’s grandmother, an unrepentant supporter of the Communist regime at whose house the students daily watch the proceedings on television. These five form a kind of chorus, commenting on developments in the trial, expressing the hopes of the young and the doctrines of the old.
In his presentation of these characters, Barnes is the scrupulously objective observer, allowing each to speak in his or her own voice, avoiding prejudicial commentary. Partisans of one side or the other would no doubt prefer more involvement and less neutrality in the author, and it is both a strength and a weakness of the story that Barnes refuses to judge. Without authorial guidance, readers are forced to assess the facts for themselves and to confront their own prejudices and assumptions, surely part of Barnes’s purpose in writing the book. On the other hand, like John Milton, Barnes unwittingly may be of the devil’s party, for his Petkanov is, like Milton’s Satan, by far the most vigorous and appealing character. Beside him, the conscientious and punctiliously fair Solinsky appears inept and wimpish, for although Petkanov blusters and dodges, he steadfastly maintains his belief in socialism and the ultimate triumph of his faith. Solinsky, by contrast, can offer only a pious hope that freedom and truth eventually will produce a better life for the people.
Ironically enough, for a novel that appears on the surface to be a disinterested investigation of contemporary international politics, The Porcupine is at bottom a novel about faith. Petkanov gets directly to the heart of this when he says, “Because, you see, we gave them sausage and higher things. You do not believe in higher things, and you do not even give them sausage. There is none in the shops.” For Petkanov, faith is adherence to the Marxist doctrine of the ultimate defeat of capitalism by socialism, and like any martyr to a cause, he cares nothing about what happens to him but a great deal about what happens to his faith. For him, the current counterrevolution is merely the end of the first stage, Communism’s first jump toward heaven. Capitalists, by contrast, have made many jumps and have accomplished much less. Petkanov’s faith in the inevitability of a socialist heaven is shared by Stefan’s grandmother, who keeps a picture of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin on her kitchen wall and who, in the last scene of the book, stands on the steps of the Mausoleum of the First Leader holding Lenin’s photograph like a holy icon, while not far away the bronze statues of the Communist saints Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Leonid Brezhnev, and Petkanov lie like pagan gods in Christian Rome.