Stoyo Petkanov, the central character of Julian Barnes’s new novella, is a satirical creation of genius. Three parts Todor Zhivkov, the ghastly former ruler of Bulgaria, to one part Alf Garnett, he is the deposed communist boss of a (nameless) Soviet satellite state. Imprisoned by his reform-minded successors, he is about to be put on trial. The proceedings are to be televised. For the chief prosecutor, Peter Solinsky, it is an opportunity for advancement under the new regime. For the watching millions, it is a chance to purge themselves of the past. For Petkanov, however, it is a stage from which he can appeal to History: ‘He wasn’t going to play the part allotted him. He had a different script in mind.’ The Porcupine tells what happens.
To those who have never imagined Barnes as a political writer, this book will come as a revelation. The East European background is expertly rendered: not merely the obvious and familiar features – the drab apartment blocks and toppled statues – but the weird humour that sustained the democratic opposition. There is a wonderful account of a demonstration by a group called the Devinsky Commando, named after ‘an ironist and provocateur’, who overwhelm Petkanov’s militia by chanting slogans with which the state cannot, legally, disagree: ‘Thank you for the price rises.’ ‘Thank you for the food shortages.’ ‘Give us ideology not bread.’
But it is the character of Petkanov himself which brings Barnes’s satire to life. The monologues in which he rants about the enemies of socialism capture exactly the tone of the first generation of communist bosses: energetic, compelling, both funny and frightening, with flowery Marxist jargon suddenly sprouting out of peasant earthiness. Petkanov rises on occasions to a kind of demagogic poetic frenzy.
Petkanov dominates the book, which serves Barnes’s purpose in two ways. First, one never doubts that such a man could dominate a country, and hang over its fragile new democracy like a poisonous cloud. The well-meaning, morally equivocal prosecutor is unable for the most part to shake off his old terror of the former ‘Helmsman of the Nation’, and Petkanov treats him with contempt:
If hard labour in Varkova hadn’t broken him, when even some of the toughest comrades wet their pants at the thought of a visit from the Iron Guard, he wasn’t going to be beaten down by this pitiful cabbage-brained lawyer who was fifth choice for the job.
Petkanov boasts that the men in his family always live to be centenarians, and Solinsky has ‘a sudden, nauseating vision’ of the old man rehabilitated at the age of ninety and hosting his own TV series.
Secondly, by portraying Petkanov as such a charismatic figure, Barnes manages to make the appeal of communism explicable. In so doing, The Porcupine implies that the victory of capitalism may not prove as final as it has been cracked up to be. The book opens with a haunting description of housewives demonstrating against food shortages under the new regime. This provides more ammunition for Petkanov who inveighs against the capitalists who ‘marched in, bankrupted everything, declared it inefficient, threw everyone out of work, [and] picked up all the nice old houses for themselves as second homes’.
It is an unexpected and nicely ironic trick, to give the communist devil all the best tunes, and those who subscribe to the triumphalist Fukuyama line about the end of history will find The Porcupine uncomfortable reading. At one point, Petkanov consoles himself with an old saying:
‘“You don’t get to Heaven on the first jump.” Look how many jumps they and their sort have had over the centuries. Jump, jump, jump like a spotted frog in a slimy pond. But so far we have only had one jump, and what a glorious leap it has been. Especially as the whole process began not as Marx had predicted, but in the wrong century and at the wrong time … and yet we had half the world on our side in a mere fifty years. What a glorious first jump!’
Barnes’s ambivalence about the future (if any) of socialism is encapsulated in the book’s powerful final scene, where an old woman sits in a downpour amid the fallen statues of Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev and Petkanov, holding up ‘a small framed print of V I Lenin. Rain bubbled the image, but his indelible face pursued each passer-by.’ Is this an icon being kept alive for the future, or the pathetic madness of a bag lady?
Not all aspects of The Porcupine ring true. For example, the climax of Petkanov’s defence in court is his recitation of the honours and commendations he has received from Western leaders. These were certainly showered on Ceauşescu, but only because he broke with the USSR over its invasion of Czechoslovakia. It is hard to imagine Petkanov – in his words ‘the most loyal ally of the Soviet Union’ – receiving an honorary knighthood, even at the request of the British Foreign Office. But such quibbles aside, The Porcupine is a minor masterpiece of political satire: compelling, funny and frightening.