Immoral means, desired ends argued in novel form

March 07, 1993|By Michael Boylan

THE PORCUPINE.

Julian Barnes.

Knopf.

138 pages. $17.

The downfall of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe has changed the lives of many people dramatically. The time frame in which this occurred was equally incredible. Therefore, a novel on this subject would offer many possibilities. Julian Barnes' latest novel, "The Porcupine," stakes out this territory.

It is a departure for Mr. Barnes, an English writer, whose most successful novels, "Flaubert's Parrot" and "The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters," dealt with literary and artistic themes. In this work Mr. Barnes presents us with an unnamed former Soviet satellite country in January 1991. The Communist Party is a thing pf the recent past and Stoyo Petkanov, the Communist head of state (the Helmsman), has just been deposed. Comrade

Petkanov is now on trial for crimes against the state. His adversary is Peter Solinsky, Prosecutor General and former law professor.

The problem is, if Stoyo Petkanov is to be charged with breaking the law, then there had to be a set of laws in place that he can be said to have broken. One cannot break non-existent laws, nor can one pass laws retroactively to cover past actions. When Petkanov was in power, he was the state. Whatever he did was, therefore, legal.

However, the fact remains that he must be tried. The alternative of a quick firing squad would taint the new regime and undermine the rule of law. For it is disregard for the rule of law that made Petkanov a monster in the first place. One cannot repudiate a process without becoming just like the accused. On the other hand, the established laws of the time will not be sufficient to convict Petkanov.

It is a difficult decision for Peter. After much indecision, he chooses the end over the means. Immoral (illegal) means require cooking up evidence just as the old regime had done. He was no better than the man he was prosecuting. Yet he had higher objectives: freedom and democracy. Does that make a difference?

After the trial, the old dictator makes this point to his young

accuser: "Well let me put it this way. Do you think of me as an ordinary man, or as a monster?"

"Neither." The Prosecutor General gave a sharp nasal sigh. "I suppose I think of you as just a gangster." . . . the former President pressed on, almost tauntingly . . . "If I am a monster, I BTC will come back to haunt your dreams, I will be your nightmare. If I am like you, I will come back to haunt your living days. Which do you prefer? Eh?"

The scene is neatly portrayed. But although it works as a philosophical problem, it doesn't work as fiction. The situation is far too controlled. We care for neither the prosecutor nor the deposed head of state. They are stick figures in a philosophical dialogue on the nature of law in the midst of political change.

And Peter's family never really come to life. His wife is willing to leave him for "betraying his ideas," but this relationship and her psyche are so underdeveloped that this reaction seems unaccountable.

Even as philosophy, this book misses the mark. There is no discussion of using the legal tradition in the country before communism, which would be an acceptable approach for legal positivists. This approach would appeal to laws that had been suppressed by a usurping government. It would be a legitimate method and one that any law professor would think of.

A second "natural law" approach a la Thomas Jefferson might also do the trick. But again, this alternative is not even hinted at. Instead, we are offered "forced" drama, which is really the gross ineptitude of the Prosecutor General.

"The Porcupine" thus fails as fiction and as philosophy. There is little else that could recommend this book. Let us hope that in the future Mr. Barnes returns to those themes that are more his forte.

Dr. Boylan is a poet and philosopher who lives in the Washington area. His most recent book is "Perspectives in Philosophy."

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