The quill is mightier than the sword

The Porcupine

Every Julian Barnes book is different from the rest. Nonetheless, there is a particular method he returns to in order to drive the plot. He lets each character play out a rich, complex internal life in front of the reader to inform their often otherwise often inexplicable actions. It is this which lends a humanity to Barnes' least human---and, in some stories, non-human---protagonists. In The Porcupine, a short story about the trial of fictional, deposed, Soviet-satellite leader Stoyo Petkanov, he uses this method to achieve the impossible: to make liberals fall in love with a communist Alf Garnett.

Petkanov is a totalitarian boor, a lost soul, a Kurtz that cannot be brought back from the darkness. Yet, as Martin Amis accomplishes in Time's Arrow, Barnes forces us to examine our own morality through its mad inverted twin, which permeates Petkanov's tirades against the running-dog upstarts who dare to question his rule. His world has fallen apart but he remains together---although not for long---and we feel the visceral heat of his coherent outrage. As Peter Solinsky, chief prosecutor under the new regime, tries to find a foothold for the intended public prosecution of the old dictator, the reader must face the imperfections of post-Soviet societies stripped of their capitalist rhetoric, and wince at the bitterness that Petkanov feels, when he remembers the chance he had had to rejuvenate and perhaps even save communism. Gorbachev, fucking Gorbachev, supposed hero of the cold war, broke his promise to Petkanov, Petkanov's country, all of the Soviet Union and communism itself. Well, didn't he, Petkanov demands?

If Arthur Koestler had had a more jesterly sense of humour, we would have had from him The Porcupine instead of Darkness at Noon. Koestler's moral ambiguity stems from Rubashov's own admission of his guilt, as part of a system immoral both as a whole and as its constituent individuals, and his later attempts to live, briefly, with himself; Barnes plays on the sympathy one feels, sitting outside this irredeemable old man. It's a sympathy born of pity---he's a pathetic figure, twisted in the absence of his moral compass---but the feeling itself stands as a testament to man's eventual humanity to man.