Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Porcupine: Review

In The Porcupine written by Julian Barnes in 1992, the author of Talking it Over and The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters focuses his laser-like prose on the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and parts of Russia. The story is a familiar one--the Communist Party has been toppled in a former Soviet satellite country and Stoyo Petkanov, former Party President, is on trial for crimes that range from corruption to political murder. His opponent is the newly appointed Prosecutor General, Peter Solinsky. The relationship is made more complicated by fact that Solinsky's father was friends with Petkanov and then was exiled by him.

One man stands for the old ideology, the other for the new ideals. But as we follow the trial and watch the relationship between the two antagonists we begin to wonder at the differences between the two. At one point Solinsky considers the way ideals change...or at least how we view them changes. "A loyal Communist becomes a Trotskyist terrorist and then a loyal Communist again. Heroes become traitors and traitors become martyrs. Inspirational leaders and helmsmen of the nation become common criminals with their hands in the cashbox--until, perhaps, at some dread moment in the future, they become charming nonagenarians on TV chat shows." And, in the end, are the methods that Solinsky uses to gain the conviction he seeks any better than the methods of the man he has brought to trial?

This is a powerful and unsettling book. A novel about the fall of Communism and, yet, the hold it retains on its successors. It is about the uncertain politics of that time and the disturbingly grey areas hidden in any of the black and white visions held about the world. A well-written novel about a difficult political time. Three and a half stars.

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