When The Porcupine was published in 1992, the world was still absorbing the dramatic events of the anti-Communist revolutions that started in the late 1980s, culminating in the reunification of Germany in 1990 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Influenced by these events, Barnes spun this tale that takes place in a fictional Soviet satellite country that some critics will swear is based on Bulgaria, while others will insist it’s obviously inspired by Romania. In this unnamed nation, the Communist Party has collapsed and former president/dictator/party leader Stoyo Petkanov is on trial for crimes against the people. Peter Solinksy represents the new democratic government and serves as State Prosecutor.
Compactness of writing is one of Barnes’ greatest strengths, and he touches on an impressive number of themes in this 130-page novelette. From the most practical standpoint, he addresses the shortages of food and economic turmoil that naturally occur in times of political transition. In the opening scene, women are seen marching to Parliament to protest food shortages, a fact which Petkanov throws in Solinsky’s face later, albeit in a distinctly misogynistic manner (“So, now even your women are protesting. . . . A government that cannot keep its women in the kitchen is fucked, Solinsky, fucked.”). You can’t tell a story about democracy without conceding that Stalin made the trains run on time.
Ultimately, though, this novel is about a power struggle between two men. Petkanov is a natural showman and shamelessly uses his time in court to paint himself as a scapegoat and Solinsky as a shill for a new form of oppression. That Petkanov would be found guilty is a foregone conclusion–Petkanov’s accusations that it’s a kangaroo court are accurate in that sense, and he’s certainly not the only guilty party in the country. Yet Solinsky is determined to present an honest and legitimate case, resulting in slight and watered-down accusations such as using political power to give an ally a better apartment than was entitled (the official crime is “contravention of the rules governing the behavior of state officials in respect to housing”). When Petkanov scoffs that this is the worst thing the prosecution can come up with to accuse him of after a 33-year rule, Solinsky counters, “You would rather be charged . . .with the rape and pillage of this nation, with economic vandalism?”
“You talk about rape and pillage,” Petkanov counters. “Under Socialism we benefited from a rich supply of raw goods from our Soviet comrades. Now you invite the Americans and the Germans here to rape and pillage.”
Eventually, Petkanov’s unflappable manner and his refusal to tone down his act even when the prosecutor and accused are alone wear Solinsky down and bring him to the edge of despair. In the end, he betrays his own moral code by accusing Petkanov in court of a more sensational, and possibly nonexistent, crime.
I find it nearly impossible to read any political novel without drawing some parallels to our current state, perhaps because the current state of our country is so often on my mind. In one exchange, Solinsky asks Petkanov if he isn’t interested in what “the devil” has to say.
Petkanov: “The devil?”
Solinsky: “The journalists of our free press.”
Petkanov: “Freedom. . .consists of conforming to the will of the majority.”
In another section about old monuments being removed, a character observes, “You did not have to agree with every monument. You did not destroy the Pyramids in retrospective guilt at the sufferings of the Egyptian slaves.”
Either of those two passages could form the basis of an excellent series of essays and debates about current events in the United States. So yes, in some ways this book does still resonate 25 years later.
Sadly, where I felt The Porcupine doesn’t hold up is on the whole question of morality. Solinsky’s downfall is based on a decision so minor by today’s standards that it would barely raise an eyebrow. An investigative reporter uncovering the story would most likely be met with apathy by the average U.S. citizen.
So perhaps it’s not this novel that has let me down. I think I need to put The Porcupine away for another 25 years and see how it reads then.