Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Twilight in the Balkans

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Twilight in the Balkans

Article excerpt

`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. …

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