The Porcupine

* Srdjan Dragojevic

Director: Srdjan Dragojevic

Julian Barnes's The Porcupine, is set amid confusions subsequent to the fall of a Communist regime in an unnamed Eastern European country that reads like a Slavic Romania. Stoyo Petkanov, the former President, a cross between Nicolae Ceaucescu and Bulgaria's Georgi Dimitrov, is on trial in the courts of the shakily democratic successor government. As in the former Soviet Union, the new crowd is trying to cope with the horrors of an economy in transition. Goods are short and prices high. Human intercourse has been corrupted by police intrigue under the Communists. Old apparatchiks (and their children), knowing where the bodies are buried, manage to cling to power under new colors.

Peter Solinsky, the son of a party intellectual, raised to the privileges of the old order, finds himself state prosecutor, charged with conducting Petkanov's show trial. The trial is intended by the new government as a ritual of self-congratulation and exculpation. In other words, Petkanov is to be a scapegoat, as Ceaucescu was, for four decades of cant, hypocrisy and terror.

In the course of conducting Petkanov's interrogation and trial, Solinsky comes to understand that the performance he is stage-managing, designed as an edifying exercise in democratic accountability, is as amoral and self-serving as the show trials conducted under the Communists.
Battered by the saturnine taunting of the fallen old leader, who does his best to turn the tables and put his enemies on trial, the prosecutor grows weary and confused. Losing respect in his wife's eyes and even in his own, Solinsky finds that his hope in the democratic future may have been in vain. The fall of the system that nurtured him has brought, instead of energy and purpose, an ironically bourgeois alienation.

The world in which The Porcupine is situated is one where the fall of the Communist regimes has visited political vertigo on the world. State Communism -- the one constant of political direction, the raison d'etre of the cold war, the only thing that made the free world "free" -- is apparently disappearing.

Solinsky is the educated Everyman reduced to the condition of our own fin de siecle, trying to believe in the ideals he professes, unwilling to face his own opportunism. Maria is the somewhat unreasonably bitchy and petulant wife such a fellow deserves, moralizing at him and shaking his confidence.

Other characters appear, come and go throughout the film. Atanas, Vera, Stefan and Dimiter are four of the postgraduate types whose demonstrations brought down the regime. They, mostly Atanas, are typical smart-alecky intellectuals -- useless, boozy and wry. We hear them as a chorus, watching Petkanov's trial on television.
Stefan has a pious old Bolshevik granny, reminiscent of the fierce ladies who are demonstrating for Stalin in Red Square but intended as more attractive. She gets the last word on the four wise guys.

In the same spirit, Petkanov, the former dictator, is a perverse truth teller in spite of his jargon, akin to the Mephistophelean characters in Shaw who deflate the pretensions of lesser men and represent the Life Force.

// From the press