The Porcupine, byJulian Barnes
After the Fall
by Julian Barnes.
Knopf. 138 pp. $17.00.
The Communist experience, which over the decades exerted a powerful influence on the emotions of people throughout the world, utterly failed to stimulate the imagination of the West’s creative writers. Aside from the two titans of anti-totalitarian literature, George Orwell and Arthur Koestler, plus a handful of lesser-known writers and practitioners of the spy genre, Western novelists and, for that matter, filmmakers, generally avoided the many themes suggested by the realities of life under Communism. To the contrary: in America, at least, the excesses of anti-Communism proved much more fertile terrain for the literary mind, giving birth to a cottage industry of books and movies equating anti-Communism with McCarthyism, portraying the CIA as fomenting bizarre plots against innocent Americans, and indicting cold-war armaments projects as a menace to the environment and the human species itself.
Now, with the publication of The Porcupine by the noted British writer Julian Barnes, we have the first serious Western novelistic attempt in some time to come to grips with the Communist experience. The story is set in a fictional East European country which closely resembles Bulgaria; the time is shortly after the Communist system has collapsed and been replaced by a market-oriented democracy; and the issue addressed by Barnes is highly relevant to all societies which have liberated themselves from the shackles of a Leninist regime: can a formerly Communist society punish those responsible for the crimes of the past without resorting to the fraud and deceit which marked Communist judicial methods?
Barnes is an unlikely candidate for an undertaking of this sort. In his previous novels, he has displayed little interest in the great political and social debates of our era, preferring more conventional and personal subjects: coming of age in the suburbs, sexual obsession, adultery, the tricks of fate. Indeed, Barnes seems to regard ideas as much less interesting than experiments in literary form and the intricacies of the English language.
It is thus not surprising that The Porcupine does not conform to the traditional pattern of the political novel. Its plot centers on the trial of the country’s former Communist leader, a veteran party loyalist named Stoyo Petkanov who is clearly modeled on Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria’s leader during most of the Communist period. Like most Communist bosses, Zhivkov managed to shroud much of his political and private life in mystery. But Barnes has obviously familiarized himself with the available information, and the details of Petkanov’s political career—such as his proposal to transform his country into a republic of the Soviet Union—usually mirror known facts.
One suspects that Barnes developed a fascination for the real-life Zhivkov because of the Bulgarian dictator’s resourcefulness and staying power. He remained at the pinnacle of his party-state for 35 years, during which time he weathered leadership changes in Moscow and survived various challenges—reportedly including several coup attempts—from within Bulgaria itself. By instinct a dogmatist, Zhivkov could play at reform when the temper of the times demanded it. He was, in other words, the consummate professional totalitarian.
But despite Zhivkov’s wiliness, Bulgaria gained a certain pariah-state reputation during the final years of Communist rule; the regime, usually quite successful in avoiding negative publicity, earned notoriety for providing safe haven for terrorists, persecuting ethnic minorities, and commissioning the assassination of émigré journalists by means of poisoned umbrellas.
Although Zhivkov drew much of the blame for these crimes, he was not charged with the most serious offenses of the Communist era when the new government eventually placed him on trial. It prosecuted him instead under the laws which had prevailed during his leadership, a decision which meant that he would not be compelled to answer for such major political acts as the oppression of the country’s Turkish minority. Zhivkov was tried for the traditional crimes of “bourgeois corruption”: favoritism, nepotism, the misallocation of funds.
Barnes’s fictional Stoyo Petkanov likewise faces corruption charges which seem insignificant given the many crimes committed by the state during his rule. Ordinarily, one might expect that pinning guilt on a man whose lengthy rule was sustained by a system of official repression, especially for such minor offenses, would prove simple enough. Yet from the very outset Petkanov proves an elusive target. Documentary evidence is in short supply, and witnesses, often the former beneficiaries of Petkanov’s patronage, reinforce his alibis or suffer convenient memory loss.
As for Petkanov himself, he treats the charges—indeed, the whole process—with contempt. And he reserves his most withering scorn for the state prosecutor, Peter Solinsky. A law professor and the son of a one-time party comrade of Petkanov, Solinsky is a man of mediocre abilities and considerable self-doubt, a man trying to “force on himself a maturity which mere time was failing to provide.” A party member for many years, Solinsky had decided, almost on a whim, to turn in his party card and join a nascent Green party shortly before the collapse of the Communist system. He is someone, it is made clear, with little backbone and few strong convictions.
Of the two men, Petkanov is by far the more skilled debater, both in courtroom exchanges with the prosecutor and in their private interrogation sessions. Semi-educated, and still prone to misty sentimentality when recounting stories of the party’s early ordeals, Petkanov is both more intellectually agile and more committed to a set of political principles than his non-Communist adversary, who summons up lame clichés in defending the new democratic order.
At a certain point in the trial, Petkanov scores a devastating blow by recounting how Solinsky, while still a loyal party member, had spent his time during a state-financed trip to Italy buying expensive clothes and bedding an attractive woman. After a bit of soul-searching, Solinsky hits back by presenting a document supplied by the security apparatus—and almost certainly faked—that ties Petkanov to the death of his own daughter, a woman who had been a rising force in national affairs before her mysterious demise. Through this bit of fraud Solinsky clinches his victory; while Petkanov is convicted only of the corruption charges, in the public’s mind he has been found guilty of a truly monstrous crime.
But while Solinsky may have fooled the nation, he has not deceived his wife, the granddaughter of a revolutionary hero and a victim of Stalin. As is usually the case in Barnes’s novels, it is the woman who represents honesty and common sense. “It’s a show trial,” she tells Peter. “Just the modern version. A show trial. That’s all.” Nor has Solinsky fooled Petkanov. Defiant to the end, he hurls a terrifying imprecation at the prosecutor in their final meeting: “I convict you.”
In fact, at no time in The Porcupine is it directly suggested that Petkanov was responsible for criminal acts or political misconduct of any sort. A reader unfamiliar with postwar European history would be compelled to conclude that the country had been in more competent and honest hands under the old leader—who remains to the end a man of ideals—than under the new breed of democratic politicians represented by Peter Solin-sky.
Such an impression is reinforced by Barnes’s bleak depiction of life in the post-Communist era. Shortages are more severe than during Communist times; ration coupons for sausage are not available at all; buses run episodically because of fuel scarcity; and there are daily, planned power outages. The new ethos of capitalism, combined with endemic scarcity, has triggered an alarming deterioration in the level of everyday civility. To demonstrate contempt for the shape things are in, people have adopted the practice of spitting on the streets, and everywhere there is the lure of pornography, the black market, and imported alcohol. Images of death abound in this novel: there are more abortions than live births, and more deaths than births.
To reinforce this atmosphere of decay and hopelessness, Barnes suggests that the younger generation is, if anything, more lacking in values than those who had spent long years under Communism. Three university students who make intermittent appearances come across as silly and vacuous; they are unfavorably contrasted to an old grandmother who sits mutely under a photograph of Lenin dreaming of
the moment when men and women would rise and shake themselves, recovering their dignity and starting again the whole glorious cycle of revolution.
No wonder, then, that against this background the aging Communist Petkanov seems in a perverse way a man of principle par excellence. And in this one respect, it must be said, Barnes’s otherwise jejune portrait of Petkanov reflects a historical phenomenon that is very real. Thus, in the ghoulish tribunal held before his summary execution, Nicolai Ceausescu of Romania treated his interrogators with contempt and brazenly defended the policies which had made Romania the outcast of Europe.
Then there is Erich Honecker, the leader of Communist East Germany. Placed on trial for having given border guards shoot-to-kill orders at the Berlin Wall, Honecker called the building of the Wall a “historic event” which “was correct and remains correct,” and added that it had contributed to peace and European unity. Therefore, he concluded, he and his fellow party leaders were “not guilty of any political, judicial, or moral wrongdoing.”
Not only are there Communists who continue to defend the most despicable policies, but there are those in the West who find much to praise in their supposedly undiminished idealism. This is certainly true of Irene Disch, an American now living in Germany, who describes Honecker in near-heroic terms in a piece which appeared in the “Talk of the Town” section of the New Yorker. Noting his “stern intensity” and erect posture, the latter a “symbol of incorruptibility,” Disch is struck that Honecker’s “enthusiasm for the working class and for Communism is still fresh, boyish,” and marvels that, “Neither old age nor years of authority seem to have altered Honecker’s ideals.” (The New Yorker article created something of a scandal in Germany when it was learned that the author is married to one of Honecker’s attorneys and had gained unusual access to closed judicial sessions.)
There is little doubt that we will encounter similar tributes to the founding fathers of Marxism-Leninism as the countries they ruined remain mired in economic disarray and political strife. The fascination of the Western intellectual class for men of lofty motives and iron determination—provided, that is, that they are men of the Left—is an old, old story.
Interestingly, however, the real-life Todor Zhivkov has adopted a far more realistic attitude toward the past than either Honecker or Barnes’s fictional Petkanov. Thus, Zhivkov has derided as “utter nonsense” Erich Honecker’s contention that Communism would rise again, and has stated that the Leninist conception of building socialism in backward societies had produced a “stillborn” socialism. The Porcupine would have been a far more credible work of political fiction had Barnes patterned the figure of Petkanov more closely on this real-life Zhivkov, who actually seems to have learned a few things, instead of creating a character who retains to the bitter end a set of beliefs unworthy of an undergraduate.