cover image The Porcupine

The Porcupine

Julian Barnes. Knopf Publishing Group, $17 (138pp) ISBN 978-0-679-41917-4

Though Barnes generally excels at the novel of ideas ( Flaubert's Parrot ) and is a master at disclosing character through adroit dialogue ( Talking It Over) , his latest effort, an interesting thesis conveyed in verbal interchanges between two characters, doesn't cohere into a dramatic narrative. The deposed president of an Eastern European country newly liberated from the Communist yoke is put on trial for the crimes he committed during his 33-year iron rule. The state's prosecutor general tries without success to make wily, cunning Stoyo Petkanov admit his guilt, but Petkanov cleverly represents himself as a man of the people whose only desire was to serve the state. Turning the tables, he deftly questions the competence of the new regime, whose efforts to achieve a market economy have produced economic chaos. Moreover, he insidiously suggests that the prosecutor, a former Communist who rebelled against the system that rewarded him, is himself no less venal, greedy and opportunistic: the accused and his accuser are both corruptible. Barnes is most effective in getting inside the head of an unreconstructed hard-line Communist, showing the mental set of a staunch believer in the ``one true scientific path of Marxism-Leninism.'' Yet in expounding his dark and cynical view of human nature and the nature of all political systems--democratic and despotic alike--Barnes has created a bloodless, fleshless argument between two talking heads. (Nov.)