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 practiced by André Malraux, George Orwell, and Arthur Koestler. The first sentence shows us what we are in for, as if Barnes were sending up a discreet but unmistakable signal not to be surprised by the conventions of what follows. “The old man stood as close to the sixth-floor window as the soldier would allow.” Is this old man a villain or a victim, a martyr of some despotic regime, or an upholder of it who has fallen from favor? No matter: the sentence clearly warns us to keep a straight face and to take what is to come seriously.
In fact the old man soon turns out to be Stoyo Petkanov, the chairman, president, great leader, or what have you, of an East European Communist state. In the October 26 issue of The New Yorker Barnes writes that after visiting Bulgaria, he had “used the outline” of the trial of Todor Zhivkov, the former head of state, and then had “gone off on my own.” But as Petkanov waits in detention, he reflects on the somehow more respectable fate of Nicolae Ceausescu in neighboring Romania, shot “in hot blood” with his wife after a summary court-martial. The reader, not being aware of Barnes’s experience in Bulgaria, may ask whether the real Ceausescu was a colleague of the imaginary Petkanov, or the ruler of an adjacent state. Tzvetan Todorov—himself a Bulgarian incidentally—would show a professional interest in this riddling twist on the invention reality theme, a flash of the old Barnes.
The novel’s opening is strongly reminiscent of Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler’s memorable piece of imaginative reportage about the fate of Rubashov, otherwise the real Soviet politician Bukharin, one of the most illustrious victims of Stalin’s purges in the 1930s. Koestler’s novel begins with Rubashov in Lubyanka Prison, reflecting on what has gone wrong with the Soviet dream, and how the tyranny of “Number One” has come to be so totally established. In The Porcupine the fallen Petkanov shows his disdain for the aimless students and time-servers who have overthrown his regime, and his former security men who now serve or control it. Koestler portrayed Rubashov’s duels with the two interrogators—the soft man and the hard man, who takes over when the soft man is himself liquidated—and filled his book with their arguments about the nature and destiny of power, and its corruption in the pursuit of noble ideals. Petkanov argues with his young prosecutor, Solinsky, about the ideals of socialism and what has replaced them. The old man claims to be the expert on what the people want.
“They want stability and hope. We gave them that. Things might not have been perfect, but with Socialism people could dream that one day they might be. You—you have only given them instability and hopelessness. A crime wave. The black market. Pornography. Prostitution. You are proud of these swift achievements?”
“There was always crime. You just lied about it.”
“They sell pornography on the steps of the Mausoleum of the First Leader. You think that is funny? You think that is clever? You think that is progress?”
“Well, he isn’t inside to read it.”
“You think that is progress? Come on, tell me, Peter.”
“I think,” replied Solinsky, who despite his weariness retained his lawyer’s instinct for leverage, “I think it’s appropriate.” Petkanov looked at him sharply. “The First Leader specialised in pornography; I’d say.”
“There is no comparison.”
“Ah, but there is, an exact one. You said you gave the people hope. No, what you gave them was fantasy. Big tits and huge cocks and everyone screwing one another endlessly, that’s what your First Leader was selling, its political equivalent anyway. Your Socialism was just such a fantasy. More of one, in fact. At least there’s some truth to what they’re selling outside the Mausoleum nowadays. Some truth in that muck.”
“Who’s going in for cheap analogies now, Peter? How delightful to hear the Prosecutor General defending pornography. You are no doubt equally proud of the inflation, the black market, the whores on the streets?”
“There are difficulties,” Solinsky admitted. “This is a period of transition. There have to be painful readjustments. We must understand the realities of economic life. Then we shall achieve prosperity.”
Petkanov cackled delightedly. “Pornography, my dear Peter. Tits and cocks. Tits and cocks to you too.”
It is a bit like the sprightly political dialogue in a contemporary play. But the point raised has a leaden obviousness suited to discussions in serious journals but hardly in place among the imaginative pressures of fiction. Fiction may be able to challenge reportage and beat it on its home ground, but it cannot be wise to take on this specialized field of expository “wisdom,” however it may enliven it with wit and analogy. Every thick newspaper today makes variations on the laborious point that socialism has failed; that the alternatives are bound to seem shoddy and disagreeable; that political expectation in our time swings back and forth between the ideal and the prosperously ignoble; and that such oscillations between belief and disillusion are bound to be dangerously emphatic in former Communist states. The cry of “Come back Lenin—all is forgiven” is bound to go up soon, indeed is going up already.
Barnes would no doubt readily admit, as a part of his specification, that his characters have no flesh and blood, are mere representative points of view. Solinsky’s wife leaves him in disgust because although she no longer believed in the regime she was brought up in, this trial of their former leader seems to her time-serving and obscene. But do wives leave their husbands for this sort of reason, even in Eastern Europe today? It is more like something out of the third act of a Shaw play; and so is the dignified old Babushka who ignores the chatter all about her—mere nests, as she thinks, of clamorous young thrushes—and who brings the novel to an end as she stands silent in the dusk by the Mausoleum of the First Leader, a red flower in her hand, ignoring the catcalls of drunks and prostitutes.
Such scenes have become the clichés of contemporary journalism, and the dissatisfied reader may feel with some unease that Barnes is perfectly well aware of this. Then what is his purpose? Koestler in Darkness at Noon contrived both to fascinate and to shock his readers, not so much because of his own disillusion with what the Moscow trials foretold, ominous though that was in a specially ominous time, as because his fiction seemed to enter fully into the tragedy of Rubashov—his mind, his feelings, and his fate. Rubashov lived in the novel as a realized character can and should do. Koestler’s novel helped to give Bukharin, who has only recently been “rehabilitated” in Russia, his place in history. Is Barnes’s undercover argument that history and historical significance no longer exist, that characters, whether on contemporary television or in the pages of novels, just don’t come alive any more?
That might well be so. And yet the impulse behind the book may be much more straightforward. It is dedicated “to Dimitrina,” a hint perhaps that firsthand information from a local source may be involved. The decision to make a novel on its basis might arise from the paradoxically old-fashioned wish to make a record, to leave some abiding testimony in art to the events of the time. At their original moment such “events began to blur like bicycle spokes; yesterday’s improbable rumour became tomorrow’s stale news.” Fiction can still offer a traditional mode for memorializing such news, as it did for the news to come of 1984, which we may still hope will never arrive, or for the news of the Moscow trials which Koestler took as his inspiration. Barnes may nonetheless have been unwise to preempt the impact and technique of his novel by arranging prepublicity in The New Yorker and The London Review of Books in articles on the Bulgarian situation that explain how he came to write it. What more can the novel then have to say, although it is doubtless flattering to its author that The Porcupine is now number three on the Bulgarian bestseller list, and that the fallen Todor Zhivkov has sent for a copy to read in his prison cell?
This local and factual notoriety can hardly add to the pleasure of someone who expects to read The Porcupine as a novel, and a novel by an exceptionally accomplished and ingenious stylist of the new fictional genre. Is the novel today trying to imitate TV, which often gives the impression that news takes place for its benefit, and by courtesy of its attention? Barnes may be the expert on the comic possibilities of this still comparatively new phenomenon. Mounted on the screen, Petkanov’s trial begins by enthralling the younger citizens but soon bores them.
The most graphic section of the novel concerns events which actually took place in Timisoara, in northern Romania, though they have no doubt been thrown into sharper relief for the purposes of fiction. A Swedish TV team whose car had broken down “found themselves with nothing to film but a piece of routine provincial dissent.” The demonstration was organized by the Devinsky Commando, registered as a literary society and named after Ivan Devinsky, a “poet of the region, who despite various decadent and formalist tendencies had proved a patriot and martyr during the Fascist invasion of 1941.” In the days of the monarchy Devinsky’s ironically “loyal” sonnet, entitled “Thank You, Your Majesty,” has earned him a three-year exile in Paris (political persecution was a gentlemanly affair in those days). But someone in the Devinsky Commando has had the bright idea of borrowing their poet’s irony, so that the slogans they chant on the square in front of the security forces are rather unexpected:
THANK YOU FOR THE PRICE RISES.
THANK YOU FOR THE FOOD SHORTAGES.
GIVE US IDEOLOGY NOT BREAD.
THANK YOU FOR THE BULLETS.
PLEASE MAY WE JOIN THE SECURITY FORCES.
Nonplussed by all this, the lieutenant in charge allows himself to be embraced by the chief demonstrator, and as the TV cameras pan in “was transformed in a moment from an indecisive, if not cowardly, junior officer into a symbol of decency.” In the next few weeks he becomes a lieutenant-general and the head of Salvation Front security, all of which might not have happened if the man in charge of recording sound on the Swedish TV team had not thought of his family back in Carlstad and prudently decided not to come close in case bullets started to fly. Had he done so the conversation overheard might have disturbed the dramatic moment and the “symbol of decency.” The Devinsky Commando carry their technique an ironical stage further by sending to Petkanov’s prosecutor during his trial a placard reading GIVE US CONVICTIONS NOT JUSTICE.
Such inventive detail has always been a feature of Barnes’s novels, but here the comedy seems to have a sharp and responsible purpose. The relation with history and with the properties of the historical novels is nonetheless an uneasy one, and it is the characters who suffer most from it. Henry James noted in a letter to Sarah Orne Jewett that the novelist should not try to put himself and his invention into a historical or foreign situation, but should somehow bring that situation into his own life, as James himself attempted to do in his unfinished novel The Sense of the Past. In her recent novel about the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety,* Hilary Mantel sought to bring Robespierre and Camille des Desmoulins up to date, with some success, but nonetheless she has paid the usual price the historical novelist hardly ever escapes.
Barnes pays it too. Like Hilary Mantel he seeks to be intimate with people and situations too distant and too alien to be controlled by the creative process. As if in retaliation they become lay figures, as stiff and symbolic as the bronze statues of Lenin and Stalin and the Heroic Russian Soldier now being carted away to a scrapheap behind the railway station. Barnes’s prose, always agile and delicate, has an ironic feel for the fate of these statues which “lingered on beside the marshalling yard, shiny in the rain and as undefeated as a memory,” as if they possessed the life his story can’t quite give to its human actors. “Mutilated by an unsympathetic crane,” Lenin and Stalin and Petkanov himself, “world statesman with boxy, double-breasted suit and Order of Lenin in the buttonhole,” consort together, “silently discussing policy.” The giant effigy of the Red Army soldier, the wartime liberator, will soon join them, though there is also “a movement to return him to his donors. Let him go back to Kiev or Kalinin or wherever: he must be getting homesick after all this time, and his great bronze mother must be missing him badly.”
The statues retain both heroic and family feelings that belong to a bygone age, and are lost in the welter of contemporary discontents. Discontinuities too: for in the society sketched by Barnes the past inspires nothing but indifference. When the bronze soldier “Alyosha” is finally carted away, Prosecutor Solinsky asks his driver if he thinks it’s a good idea.
He turned slightly towards his passenger, but all Solinsky could see was a wizened neck, a battered cap and the profile of a half-smoked cigarette. “Comrade chief, now that we’re all free and can speak our minds, permit me to inform you that I don’t give a fuck either way.”
Barnes’s novel might be said to explore the atmosphere of that new indifference; and such satisfactions as it offers are—perhaps naturally enough—aesthetic rather than political. Where politics and history are concerned, the novelist, like the politician himself, has to wear what a central European proverb may or may not call porcupine gloves.
December 17, 1992