Dan Sandman

17: The Porcupine by Julian Barnes

In Books, Fiction on 25/04/2014 at 12:00 pm

OThe Porcupine by Julian Barnesne of my favourite things about being a Londoner is the wide variety of charity shops. Every High Street seems to have at least one, often several, of these voluntarily staffed wonders full of clothes, cups, toys and trinkets. The best bit is that charity shops always sell second-hand books, occasional charity shops might even become well stocked specialist book-charity-shops. One such example is the Oxfam Books where I found this Julian Barnes novella whilst passing through Ealing (West London). I had just seen Barnes being interviewed by Mark Lawson for the BBC and wanted to try one of his books for the first time. This intelligent and entertaining satire would work as a good introduction.

The story is set in a fictional Soviet satellite state during the democratisation of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The Berlin Wall has collapsed, Mikhail Gorbachev has been pushing for political change, and the recently deposed president of thirty years Stoyo Petkanov is about to be put on trial. The televised courtroom proceedings will be an opportunity for the country’s people to purge themselves of the past, but also a chance for the appalling Petkanov to defend it. What ensues is a thrilling, at times shocking, drama full of excitement and swear words.

The Porcupine is an intelligently conceived attack on the failings of Soviet ruled communistic states before what Barnes calls ‘the changes’. Based on the longest running Bulgarian president in history Todor Zhivkov, Barnes’ horrific creation Petkanov is a highly aggressive and egotistical character; an extremely powerful individual and a corrupt villain. He must be handled with porcupine gloves, like the rodent with the sharp spines ready to defend itself from predators.

My first encounter with Barnes’ writing has been enjoyable. I think his style has the clarity of George Orwell coupled with Orwell’s political punch. And although Orwell would have perhaps been against Barnes’ use of rude words, the expletives only add to the work’s humour. The Porcupine is a sharply funny book, morally concerned with what allows us to function as human individuals and as part of a wider society.

A good charity shop find and very worth reading.

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