Twilight in the Balkans
`DO you think a whole country can get therapy?" That question is at the core of British writer Julian Barnes's new novella. Set in January 1991 in an unnamed Balkan state, the narrative traces the trail of its elderly, recently deposed communist dictator.
As he revealed in a New Yorker essay published on Oct. 26 of this year, Barnes used the actual trial of Todor Zhivkov, former communist head of state in Bulgaria, as a springboard for his ruminations on the generational and ideological clash between a stolid true-believer and a faint-hearted law professor turned public prosecutor general, Peter Solinsky.
In this largely fictional account, the newly empowered authorities intend the widely televised trial to be a catharsis for the nation. The deck is stacked against the accused. There is no chance of an acquittal.
In Barnes's telling, Second Leader Stoyo Petkanov is the antithesis of the new state's prosecutor. The sly self-confidence of the former dictator contrasts with the middle-aged attorney's reticence and indecisiveness.
Solinsky's wariness is so extreme that he jokes about wearing porcupine gloves. In fact, the title of the novella derives from an implicit analogy between handling a porcupine and staging a trial for an ousted national leader.
Another element in the novel's equation, which some readers might find too obvious, is the running commentary of a cluster of young adults who are impatient for the swift conviction and execution of Petkanov. As electrical blackouts bedevil Vera, the capital city, Atanas, Stefan, and Dimiter search for a working television set on which to witness the trial. Their verdict was reached long ago. "Shoot him," Atanas shouts at the screen.
Despite the change of government, the dead hand of the past grips this trial with a chill reminiscent of the vast, leaky, unheated public housing erected by the communists. Deceit and subterfuge persist like the polluted air and long food lines.
Because so much of what the ousted leader did was not written down, or was destroyed, it seems expedient to concoct evidence against him. The legal system, which Petkanov bent to his own ends, is twisted yet again. As the trial proceeds, charges degenerate into weary cliches. "Freedom," the prosecutor general asserts, "is merely the privilege of a social elite."
Though they sometimes teeter on the edge of stereotype, each of the characters makes some frightening political points that reflect the complexity of post-communist life in the Balkan states and Russia. Former President Petkanov argues that he not only gave the people order, he also gave them hope for the future, which the current regime is unable to do. Solinsky can only respond that the political instabilities, food shortages, unem- ployment, and crime waves are a necessary, if painful, readjustment to
a new economic system.
Those familiar with Barnes's unconventional fiction will find this work a bit monotonous. It may appear whimsical to long for the abrupt oscillations of perspective typical of Barnes's "A History of the World in 10-1/2 Chapters" (1989), but a touch of the bizarre would have helped to convey the unsettled quality of post-communist life.
In the end, nothing is resolved except a clearer vision of the stupendous obstacles facing the former communist country. The story stops on the evening before the sentencing - a sour symbol that the jury is still out on the fate of these nations.
As Solinsky comes to Petkanov's cell for one last visit, he is physically and spiritually exhausted. He knows the verdict will be declared a victory, but he is not so sure that he, or anyone, has won. The former dictator, still adamant in his beliefs and arrogantly condescending, spits out the sharp truth of the situation. "You can't get rid of me," he charges. As winter envelops Middle Europe and the former Soviet Union, we can only wait and see if Petkanov is right.