Friday, March 09, 2012
Literature is the art of discovering something extraordinary about ordinary people, and saying with ordinary words something extraordinary.
There is always one joker... Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston. February 2012.
The Porcupine is a novel by Englishman Julian Barnes that was originally published in Bulgarian [ Бодливо свинче]. This should give us a very strong clue as to the identity of which post-communist country the story takes place.
The novel concerns the trial of the former communist leader of Bulgaria, and its effects on both the central protagonists of that trial, as well as the broader community. The real strength of the book is the complexity of its characters. There is no clear ‘black and white’ here and the tones in which the former dictator and the new democratic government’s representatives are painted are very much grey. Barnes has done an excellent job of overcoming the certainties of Cold War triumphalism and creating human characters (especially given that the book was released in 1992, with events still very fresh in the mind).
The point of the book seems to be more than exploring complexities of a particular political moment (although it does do this incredibly well). It surveys the ambiguities of our own motives and self-interests; the ways in which ‘justice’ can and can’t be had; and ultimately the net effect of forty years of totalitarian rule on a people who just want to get on with their lives.
As ever, Barnes writes very well. He has an acute sense of history and the central premise of the prosecution of the former dictator as, in effect; another ‘show trial’ is one with amply demonstrated. That is, the trial represents an edifying exercise in ‘democratic accountability’ just as stage-managed and self-serving as any of the show trials conducted under the Communists.
I think that this book is a great success, and should be of interest to both fans of history and good literature. Highly recommended.