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The Porcupine.

The jury is still out, one might think, on the subject of whether a good defense is the best offense or whether a good offense is the best defense. I suppose it depends on whether we're talking about porcupines, football, boxing, or possibly show trials before and after the meltdown of the Iron Curtain. The Porcupine is about the fictitious show trial of a former Balkan dictator of many years, a trial which takes place just after the recent break-up of the Soviet Union. Stoyo Petkanov is the old porcupine, the longtime leader who fought his way up through the party ranks to the top; Peter Solinsky is the young prosecutor, the law professor who wishes to bring Petkanov to a new kind of justice for the Balkans, based on a new democracy, but one that does allow for some bending of the rules (and a little help from the showier trials on both sides of the Atlantic). As he tells his wife Maria, when he is about to leave on the first morning of Criminal Law Case Number 1, after she has warned him to be careful, "Careful? Of course I shall be careful. Look ... I am wearing my porcupine gloves." What follows is a play-by-play, blow-by-blow account of the daily confrontation between these two representatives of the old and the new, the elderly and the young, planned economy and market economy (hopefully without benefit of trickle down), the old law and the yet to be tried new law. But will the trial be different? Maria thinks not: "It's a show trial, Peter. Just the modern version. A show trial, that's all. But I'm sure they'll be very pleased." "They" includes the quartet of young viewers who act as a chorus in their apartments and who are soon bored. Familiar? Right! Even in the Balkans, even as we speak. This novella, loosely based, according to the author, on Todor Zhivkov's recent show trial in Bulgaria (Mircea Eliade described the Hungarians as "after the Bulgarians the most imbecilic people ever to have existed"), where that dictator received a seven-year sentence, is Julian Barnes's entry in a new group of works of fiction/nonfiction that have in common the notion of post-Curtain or postpartum or postnatal (birth of democracy) or postmortem (death of communism) or postnuptial (marriage of East and West) or any other term that describes the breakup of Stalin's "secret gardens," either in or out of the Soviet Union. Against Solinsky's charge - "The man was a tyrant, a murderer, a thief, a liar, an embezzler, a moral pervert, the worst criminal in our nation's history. Everyone knows it." - there is the Porcupine's response: "I am charged with bringing peace and prosperity and international respect to this country. I am charged with uprooting Fascism, with abolishing unemployment, with building schools and hospitals and hydroelectric dams. I am charged with being a Socialist and a Communist. Guilty, comrades, in every case." And the result is "thirty years of internal exile." Tennyson wrote, "The old order changeth," but by how much, and for whom? The Porcupine, as a new form of political fiction, is reminiscent of Capote's of fact and fiction in In Cold Blood, and that is praise enough.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Review of Contemporary Fiction
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Author:Byrne, Jack
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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