The Porcupine

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 491

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.

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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As Petkanov sarcastically claims, the West has only pornography and the religion of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck or the outdated rituals of an enfeebled Christianity to offer those who want both sausages and ideals.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 falling birth rate and its rising incidence of abortion, suggests that sex is no cure for spiritual emptiness.

Acting as chorus to this drama is a group of four students — Vera, Atanas, Stefan, and Dimiter — who helped to topple the old regime and who expect the trial to expose the rottenness of the system they opposed. They are sorely disappointed. Solinky’s inept prosecution and Petkanov’s skillful defense leave them with little satisfaction. In the end, they settle for the right to be frivolous as the justification for the trial and their newly won freedoms.

Artistically, Barnes’s novella may lack the depth a longer treatment might have provided and the sting a short story may have delivered, but it raises disturbing and valid questions about the end of the Cold War. If communism is the god that failed, what god or gods has the West to offer in its place? And if capitalism cannot deliver material prosperity, then what, if anything, is its justification? These are timely and timeless questions, and Barnes raises them in provocative and entertaining ways.

Sources for Further Study

The Economist. CCCXXV, November 28, 1992, p. 104.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 8, 1992, p. 3.

National Review. XLIV, December 14, 1992, p. 50.

The New Republic. CCVIII, January 4, 1993, p. 35.

New Statesman and Society. V, November 13, 1992, p. 34.

The New York Review of Books. XXXIX, December 17, 1992, p. 30.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, December 13, 1992, p. 3.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, October 5, 1992, p. 52.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 30, 1992, p. 19.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, November 15, 1992, p. 6.

The Porcupine

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2029

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.

As already noted, neither Solinsky nor the chorus of students can offer anything to replace Petkanov’s faith, not even moral superiority. Some had advocated a “moral” trial for Petkanov, but as no one had any idea of how such a trial might be conducted, it was decided to stay with the facts of who stole what from whom. Solinsky knows, as does Petkanov, that the trial is largely for show, the verdict having been decided in advance, as it would have been under Communism. In one of the trial’s few dramatic moments, Petkanov shocks everyone by pointing out that although there is no evi- dence that he ever misappropriated state funds, Solinsky used a state-sponsored trip to Rome as the occasion to buy an expensive Italian suit, dine at exclusive restaurants, and have an affair. Moreover, moral life under the new regime has deteriorated: Pornography is openly on sale, crime has increased, and prostitution is rife. The students hope the trial will prove to be the end of lies and illusions, the beginning of a new maturity in the nation and its people, but as the proceedings drag on, it becomes clear that all incriminating evidence has been destroyed and that even on the safely bureaucratic charges of deception involving documents, abuse of authority, and mismanagement Petkanov cannot be convicted fairly. The “real” charges—mass murder, genocide, destroying the country—cannot even be considered.

What all of this suggests (perhaps even shouts) is the moral shoddiness of the world that pretends to condemn Communism on the grounds of human rights, truth, and freedom but that in fact has nothing better to offer in its place. Early in the story, Petkanov muses on the downfall of the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev, whom he regards as a weakling unable to keep his own wife in line because he had lost the faith as well as his nerve. He recalls a report from his foreign intelligence branch to the effect that American presidents always feel most safe in Disneyland, for an assassination there would be a sin against the gods of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Such evidence of American childishness makes Petkanov contemptuous toward those who would do things “their way” (the Frank Sinatra doctrine) and turn his country into another Disneyland. In his concluding speech to the court, Petkanov reels off a long list of international awards and testimonials he received as a champion of peace and economic progress. They are a devastating reminder of Cold War politics and the ways in which Western and neutral countries turned a blind eye toward even the nastiest dictators in an effort to drive a wedge between the Soviet Union and its less obsequious satellites. Meanwhile, the students who at the book’s opening look forward gleefully to the trial in the end feel cheated, in spite of the guilty verdict. From an early faith in the efficacy of truth they descend to believing that the trial should not have occurred because there are not two sides to this issue, only one. Finally, they conclude that perhaps what they fought for was not some noble abstraction but for Atanas’ right to be frivolous.

Where does all of this leave the people of this confused and devastated country? Not well off materially, for at the beginning of the story the housewives gather in protest against the lack of food in the shops. They assemble peaceably in front of the old cathedral at dinnertime and meaningfully bang their humble kitchen implements as they march to the parliament building. Nor are they in good spiritual condition. Near the end of the book, Solinsky enters that same cathedral, expecting to find only old women. Instead he finds people like himself, looking for consolation, affirmation that they are something more than economic units. He lights two candles—one for the dead, the other for his country—and crosses himself. Were Barnes a conventional Christian, one might conclude that he sees in Christianity an alternative to the spiritual sterility of capitalism and the false faith of Communism, but such a conclusion seems unlikely. Rather, Barnes seems to be suggesting that a return to Christianity is for most, as for Solinsky, an act of desperation, not of faith.

Nor is it only faith that has been destroyed; the modern faith in sex has been equally damaged. Petkanov’s language is studded with gratuitous, though colorful, sexual and scatological terms, even though he puritanically abhors the postrevolutionary trade in pornography. There is no passion between Peter and Maria Solinsky, even before the revelation of his infidelity. Maria sourly notes that since the overthrow, there have been fewer births than deaths and abortions.

This is, then, a serious novella of the times, as Heart of Darkness and The Metamorphosis were of theirs. Like its predecessors, The Porcupine invites its readers to reconsider the moral order they think they know and can take for granted. Like its predecessors, this novella has its comic touches as well as its serious message. Comedy is supplied in the absurd rise of Georgi Ganin, who rocketed from lieutenant to general because of his handling of a student demonstration. Using irony rather than outrage, the students chanted “thank you for the shortages” and “give us ideology and not bread” to the uncomprehending authorities. When he admitted to the student leaders that his soldiers did not have enough bullets to shoot all the demonstrators, they kissed him in comradeship and changed their chants to “More bullets for the soldiers.” What could have been a bloody confrontation disintegrated into farce.

Except for Petkanov, the characters of The Porcupine are too thinly drawn to compel interest. Considering the world-shaking nature of the events it describes, there is a blandness to the story line, a lack of drama that is overcome only when Petkanov thunders his accusations against Solinsky. The demonstration by the housewives at the beginning of the novel and the comic resolution of the students’ demonstration are effective touches but not enough to relieve the generally gray tone of the novel. Even bleakness must seem colorful at times to be fully convincing. Barnes’s style rarely rises to the challenge of the full complexity of characters and their predicaments. The limitations of the novella are perhaps too evident here.

To say that this novella does not join its most illustrious counterparts, however, is not to say that it fails. Where Barnes succeeds is in riveting attention for a brief period on a situation that is both current and timeless. When old gods fail and fall, what new ones will take their place? More particularly, what does the West have to offer the former Communist bloc besides material goods and the culture of Mickey Mouse? These are not idle questions, and readers should be grateful that Julian Barnes has raised them so effectively and entertainingly.

Sources for Further Study

The Economist. CCCXXV, November 28, 1992, p. 104.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 8, 1992, p. 3.

National Review. XLIV, December 14, 1992, p. 50.

The New Republic. CCVIII, January 4, 1993, p. 35.

New Statesman and Society. V, November 13, 1992, p. 34.

The New York Review of Books. XXXIX, December 17, 1992, p. 30.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, December 13, 1992, p. 3.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, October 5, 1992, p. 52.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 30, 1992, p. 19.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, November 15, 1992, p. 6.

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