Julian Barnes’s novels have always had about them a mesmeric charm and an air of dangerous simplicity. Don’t be beguiled by our naive brilliance, the pages seemed to be saying: you may be missing something. And no doubt the reader often is, or at least the function of the fiction is to make him think he might be. The critical theorist Tzvetan Todorov remarked that Henry James’s stories are based on a puzzle, which cannot be solved because the story is itself the solution. With Barnes, too, the reader is both fluttered and flattered by the sense of a mystery in which he is being invited to participate. The title itself of his new novel is teasing, and never fully explained.
The genius of James easily escapes, of course, from any clever encapsulation by the theorist; and in their own and different way Barnes’s novels do so too. Flaubert’s Parrot intrigued the reader by being a quest for a famous author’s relic—the stuffed parrot that features in one of his tales—turning itself invisibly into a quest for the famous author himself, who in the midst of all the detritus of history, and the volumes of biography and critical commentary, seems somehow to have become missing. Before She Met Me asks another and quizzically related question about the past: What has happened to the experiences a woman I am in love with had before she met me, and how can they still affect me as they do? But the authorial presence in these novels is the reverse of sly: it is, on the contrary, serious, agreeable, and intelligently sincere, while at the same time separate from the subtle and humorous farce of the fictional events. That separateness was most marked in Barnes’s most recent novel, Talking It Over.
But this sense of separateness in The Porcupine has become suddenly uneasy. This new novel at first looks like a complete departure—in style, purpose, and manner. Or is it? Something of the old mystery may still be lurking, however much it seems resolutely set aside by the novel’s stark and simple new mode. For this seems a plain political novel about recent events in Eastern Europe: their progression and meaning and possible historical significance. It is a novel that seems to make a bold attempt to take the floor from the voluminous articles and reports by well-informed writers in periodicals like The New York Review or The London Review of Books, stepping sedately into print to give us views and speculations on such matters. At a time when the novel—and above all a novel by someone like Julian Barnes—is supposed to be quite different from anything humdrum that is actually happening, The Porcupine seems to attempt to break the mold.
In doing so it forfeits the puckish individuality of Barnes’s previous novels, adopting instead with an almost military rigor the techniques of “committed” fiction, as it used to be …