THE PORCUPINE by Julian Barnes



Barnes's famously light touch is applied to a bar of lead here: the nauseated, exhausted atmosphere of a newly de-Socialized Balkan state. The forever and glorious dictator, Stoyo Petkanov, is under arrest and about to face televised trial, prosecuted by law-professor-turned-prosecutor-general Peter Solinsky. With all his East European peers likewise deposed, Petkanov decides on a tactic of defiance--and with considerable skill Barnes fashions the old monster into the most compelling character: strength does not necessarily dissipate when power moves on. Pen-and-ink portraiture of other parts of the society--students, apparatchiks, ambitious functionaries clumsily changing their spots--are sprinkled throughout here, but the book essentially is a conversation--pre-trial and during--between corrupt illusion and vain hope and the gradations in-between. Barnes (Talking it Over, 1991; etc) probably is the finest practitioner of a new hybrid form of journalism-fiction. His elegant intelligence skims and swoops and repeatedly scores; his sensibility is dry, well-aimed, and consciously European, rather than stuffily British. But to make a pattern out of classic literature or social mores, as Barnes has done before, is different from bearing down on the tragedies of ideas, as here, in this brazenly short book. He seems to be making a balsa-wood diorama out of the ruins of the century; the story approaches its moral climax only to have the dictator rise in his own defense and read off all the commendations and tributes he was paid by the "free-world's" leaders. Meaning, of course, that evil is because we "let" it. It's so mingy and fey a conclusion, so disproportionate to the subject, almost mocking, that a reader feels as if he's watched a TV-news segment, a "focus report" on Good and Evil. Little about much.
Pub Date: Nov. 20th, 1992
ISBN: 0099540142
Page count: 144pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 1992


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