Sharp as a quill

Wednesday, March 22, 1995

The Porcupine

By Julian Barnes

Picador. 138 pp., $11.95 (pb)

Reviewed by Dave Riley

Just when I thought I'd give up novels for the telly and stick to periodicals rather than something more literary, Julian Barnes came my way. I view him as a significant discovery.

Here is a novelist whose prose is such that his material seems to write itself. That is an unusual skill. In his directness and ready wit, artifice is seldom evident; the reader is piloted through the paragraphs confident that s/he is in good hands. Yes, even I can understand what is being said.

And Julian Barnes has something to say.

His most recent work, The Porcupine, tackles a political enigma — the fall of Stalinism in Eastern Europe. I say "enigma" because I own up to a certain ambivalence about the events that began in 1989. While I admit that, so too does Barnes, because he has addressed these changes with an altogether brutal realism.

Barnes' story runs uncomfortably close to — at least, to someone's — home: Bulgaria. While originally published there and modelled on the changes brought about by the collapse of the old regime, the hindsight that he works from guarantees that the story has a much wider application.

Stoyo Petkanov is an old guard Stalinist and deposed party leader now on trial for crimes against the people. His adversary stands for the new order costumed in the rhetoric of fresh ideals but actually pragmatic and self-serving.

While Petkanov blames Gorbachev and glasnost for his downfall, he still professes a loyalty to the very real achievements of the old regime: "... 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. So what do you give them instead? ... You give women the freedom to come out of their kitchens and march on your parliament and tell you this truth — that there is no fucking sausage in the shops. That's what they tell you. And you call this progress?"

It is this sharp realism that makes The Porcupine work so effectively, and maybe so uncomfortably for some of us. Caught between the stale rhetoric of the past and contemporary reality, Barnes refuses to endorse the New World Order. While he may allow his old guard apparatchik nostalgic indulgences, he ever so subtly suggests that maybe there was a another way out of the political impasse imposed by Stalinism.

Such confidence in handling the messy politics involved I found startling in a novelist. In his ability to transcend merely personal themes and tackle such tumultuous events with wry wit and wisdom, Julian Barnes deserves a broad following among the rest of us.