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.