The Porcupine

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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As Petkanov sarcastically claims, the West has only pornography and the religion of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck or the outdated rituals of an enfeebled Christianity to offer those who want both sausages and ideals.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.)