‘It seems to me the further east you go the more unpunctual are the trains.’ Bram Stoker’s Dracula was the source for this epigraph to the best-known British novel of the Eighties set in Eastern Europe, Malcolm Bradbury’s Rates of Exchange. The Soviet Empire in those distant days was scarcely conceivable to English novelists except as a setting for a comedy or a thriller – two genres which tend to lionise the Englishman abroad, and to subtly belittle the natives. There are no English characters in The Porcupine, thank goodness. Julian Barnes’s seventh novel is a brief but wholly serious example of political fiction, and, if I had to choose an epigraph for it, it would come from Arthur Koestler rather than Bram Stoker.
A soberly realistic account of the trial of the ex-President of a former Communist country, The Porcupine is certainly a new departure for its author; but his development has never been predictable, and no one could accuse him of writing the same novel twice. Though his latest protagonist is what the Marxist critic Georg Lukács would have called a world-historical figure, this is far from being the sort of world history that Barnes once airily conjured up in 10½ chapters. Ex-President Stoyo Petkanov would be more at home in the pages of the Soviet Encyclopedia than in any of Barnes’s previous fictions. The Porcupine’s sole exhibition of linguistic virtuosity, and almost its only satirical touch, occurs when Petkanov recites to the court a complete list of the honours bestowed on him by foreign governments from Argentina to Zambia. There follow extracts from the fulsome speeches of welcome made by his opposite numbers on state visits, including James Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher. His listeners’ ribald speculations as to just what Petkanov might have done to merit the bestowal by Queen Elizabeth II of the Order of the Bath are, so far as I can see, the only thing in The Porcupine to betray its author’s English origins.
Should the fallen Petkanov have been put on trial? The new regime, personified by Peter Solinsky, the Prosecutor General, is torn between its desire for vengeance and a belief in fair play and the rule of law. Petkanov, who together with Solinsky’s father was once imprisoned by his country’s Fascists, despises the liberals who have overthrown him for not liquidating their opponents as he would have done. He blames the collapse of Communism on the strength of the American dollar and on Gorbachev, the ‘self-important fool’ with ‘birdshit on his head’ who got into bed with Reagan and Bush. His one remaining hero is the late Nicolae Ceausescu, a ‘mad hog’ no doubt, but ‘at least he had a bit of spine’ when his former henchmen turned against him. For the new democratic leaders and their functionaries, including Solinsky, are all ex-Communists and privileged members of the Nomenklatura who once affirmed their loyalty to the Party and its leader.
Since Petkanov’s country is not Romania, he can expect to be sentenced to internal exile rather than being hastily dragged in front of a firing squad. But his aim like Ceausescu’s is to emulate the porcupine. This spiny animal is etymologically, if in no other sense, a sort of pig, so that we might be reminded of Orwell’s Animal Farm, where the pigs took control of the revolution and declared themselves more equal (or is it less equal?) than the other animals. There is a much closer affinity, however, between Barnes’s novel and Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, which was written in an attempt to explain the Moscow Trials of 1937. The product of a less heroic and less metaphysical age, The Porcupine could be seen as an elegy for the world of Darkness at Noon, revealing the Revolution’s final decadence and sudden collapse into a state where, to all appearances, it might never have existed.
At the beginning of his imprisonment on the orders of ‘No1’, the Party leader, Koestler’s Old Bolshevik hero reflects on the flimsiness of his potential defence against the political crimes with which he is about to be charged. Rubashov realises that he must die, as he has lived, by the belief that history has replaced ethics as a guide to political actions. If you are on history’s side you are innocent; if not, you are guilty. Rubashov’s crime is simply that he has fallen out with the Party, and history, the ‘mocking oracle’, has no interpreters outside the current Party leadership. (There is not even an organised opposition, so the regime has had to fabricate one, which Rubashov will eventually confess to having joined.) ‘The horror which No1 emanated above all consisted in the possibility that he was in the right, and that all those whom he had killed had to admit, even with the bullet in the back of their necks, that he conceivably might be in the right,’ Rubashov thinks. In The Porcupine Petkanov, the fallen No 1, still thinks he is in the right, since his successors have no belief in history and nothing, therefore, on which to base their authority but bourgeois ethics.
When challenged to say what the new regime stands for, Solinsky’s answer is ‘Freedom and truth’. ‘It sounded pompous in his mouth, but it was what he believed, so why not state it?’ Can freedom and truth in the circumstances be any more than negative ideals, defining the widespread revulsion against the slavery and falsehood of the Communist era? The novel opens with a candlelit women’s march against food shortages; the candles are lit in the cathedral, ‘a rallying point from the old days of the monarchy’. There is now less food in the shops than at any time under socialism, as Petkanov gleefully points out. To the apologists of the new order this is a sign of transitional difficulties, of a period of painful readjustment to the realities of economic life; but Petkanov mercilessly scoffs at his opponents’ discomfiture. ‘A government that cannot keep its women in the kitchen is fucked,’ he exults. ‘We gave them sausages and higher things. You do not believe in higher things, and you do not even give them sausage.’
Through a series of crackling Shavian dialogues between the Prosecutor and the ex-President, Barnes asks what sort of future there is for a country ashamed of its past, wary of ideals, vindictive towards its leaders, and virtually bankrupt. (‘Fascism’, Petkanov would doubtless reply.) The people are dismantling the statues that littered the streets, but there are no fresh icons to put in their place. Better a scrapyard than a mausoleum, they think; but in time there will presumably be a new street architecture of advertisement hoardings and hamburger bars. In Petkanov’s jaundiced view a regime that brought stability and hope has been replaced by one that is content to stand idle as crime, prostitution, pornography and hunger take hold. To Solinsky, however, socialism was not just a con-trick but the ultimate pornographic fantasy, the political equivalent of ‘Big tits and huge cocks and everyone screwing one another endlessly’ Beneath his professed commitment to freedom and truth is a disillusionment bordering on nihilism.
Unlike Stalin’s prosecutors with their secret interrogation rooms and bright lights shining in their victims’ faces, Solinsky has to operate in open court. Between sessions he is obliged to brief his prisoner (who insists on conducting his own defence) on the legal moves to come. Solinsky is so concerned pot to act the Grand Inquisitor that he is in danger of putting himself in his antagonist’s power. The tone is set by his attempt to treat the ex-President as an ordinary citizen by putting him on the same meagre food rations as everyone else. Petkanov adopts the simple expedient of devouring his whole week’s rations at one sitting, and then waiting calmly until he is properly fed. Nor does the trial itself proceed at all smoothly. The official charges against him mostly rebound, since either he has covered his tracks too well, or the charges are too trivial to be worth pursuing. Even his assassination squads were expert at making it look as if their victims had died of a straightforward heart attack – or so it is alleged. Petkanov will eventually be found guilty of ‘deception’ and ‘mismanagement’ rather than murder, and much of the televised show-trial is about as exciting as the prosecution of a mafia boss for fiddling his income tax.
For reasons of state the outcome of the trial is a foregone conclusion, just as it would have been under Communism. The drama of the novel lies in the battle of wills between Petkanov and Solinsky, which mostly takes place outside the courtroom, and draws them into a relationship of inquisitor and victim despite themselves – only it is the prisoner, not the State Prosecutor, who gradually lakes the upper hand. Solinsky emerges from his last dialogue with his shrewd and stubborn antagonist feeling ‘stained, contaminated, sexually corrupted’. The emotions stirred by his final encounter with the wily old rascal seem likely to prove too much for his shaky liberal faith.
There is a necessary greyness in this political fable. The Porcupine portrays a society shorn of its rhetoric and lacking all metaphysical grandeur, living through the sullen aftermath of the tyrant’s Big Lie. Not only has the ‘time for monuments’ in this society passed, but the novel’s most positive demonstrative acts consist in the lighting of candles in the newly reopened cathedral. Admirers of the earlier, Francophile Julian Barnes may regret that in his latest work (which was first published in Bulgaria) the author of Flaubert’s Parrot and Talking it over has shed his brilliance and dandyism to become a rather sombre recorder of his times. The greyness seems inherent in his subject-matter, but it has not infected his acute and spiny prose.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.