Julian Barnes' The Porcupine and Malcolm Bradbury’s Doctor Criminale: Cultural Imperialism in the Age of Postcolonialism

Yonka Krasteva , Bulgaria


The political form of postmodernism, if ever there is any, will have as its vocation the invention the projection of a global cognitive mapping, on a social as well as spiritual scale.
Frederic Jameson
The Balkans cannot and should not be quarantined
as the "unhealthy" area of Europe, a region where
nothing can be done to expedite the transition to
democracy. In all those countries there are courageous
movements that champion precisely the values of
democracy. They should be made to feel that the
West is resolutely on their side.

Vladimir Tismaneanu

The years after the fall of the Wall, instead of breaking barriers, have created new divisions. Not only do we speak about the East and the West, but the East is continually subjected to new divisive strategies - now we talk about Central Eastern Europe and South Eastern Europe/ The Balkans and the Eurasian area/Russia. This essay seeks to address the relation between post-colonial theory and the construction of post-communist discourse in contemporary representations of Eastern Europe. By looking at two fictional imaginings of post-1989 Europe, created by celebrated contemporary English writers, I would like to examine the issues of authorship and representation, subject and history in the perspective of Multiculturalism which seeks to merge centre and periphery, to give voice to previously silenced and marginalised subjects, to revise the very idea of authenticity of representation.

My aim in this paper is to analyse the metamorphoses of the popular vampire myth in Julian Barnes’ The Porcupine and Malcolm Bradbury’s Doctore Criminale, for the western "vampire" sagas are as intimately connected with the Balkans as is the American West with the Western. Barnes’s novel alone so far has addressed directly the shifting landscape of Eastern Europe. The Porcupine focuses on the televised trial of the deposed dictator, Stoyo Petkanov, and his off-stage encounters with his adversary, the Prosecutor General, Peter Solinski, who is supposed to stand for the "brave new world" of emergent Bulgarian democracy. The author uses the genre of the court room drama in order to highlight the familiar binary oppositions for which his opponents stand - communism/democracy, the East/the West. The wily old guard is larger than life and cunningly thwarts his enemy’s attempts to pin him down. In the final encounter between the two, the triumphant Stoyo Petkanov is troped in the familiar vampire rhetoric. Solinski tries to wrench himself from the "monster’s" grasp and feels "stained, contaminated, sexually corrupted, irradiated to the bone marrow." Predictably, for the first time in his life, he hurries to the church, to exorcise the vampire with the sign of the cross. Solonski’s religious zest is pathetic, and surely the vampire is more likely to prevail over the half-hearted convert, thus leaving little doubt as to the outcome of the battle between communism and democracy in this Balkan state.

Structurally, we have a spectacle within a spectacle, for the stage on which the trial takes place is located on a larger stage constructed by Barnes himself. The peculiar selection of details, the collage of fragments of scenes and conversations and the "camera eye" effect provide the framework within which the events are to be interpreted. One of the effects of these arrangements is the strangeness and exoticism of this Balkan spectacle. As D.J. Taylor observes, the novel’s "touchstone is a deliberate staginess, a feigned theatricality of gesture and intent…The whole of a fugitive, uneasy national life is being played before a figurative camera; private speech and public rehearsal are interchangeable." The position from which the writer deals with his subject is the privileged on of the western intellectual who recognises only his own cultural code for reading reality. The major requirement in the text seems to be neither exactitude of knowledge, nor depth of penetration but coherence, the positioning of the work within recognisable body of cultural writing on the subject of Southeastern Europe.

Doctor Criminale is Bradbury’s reaction to recent massive participation of East European intellectuals in the West’s academic life. The name of his protagonist already throws a shade on his moral integrity. He is a true post-modern Dracula - a financial magnate and the philosopher King, impressively intelligent, yet elusive, fluent in several languages and a superb image maker, sexually attractive and ubiquitous, at home with all post-modern tricks, one who can beat you at your own game. Yet, he inspires fear and distrust rather than acceptance and respect, for he "comes from the dark places, " from a Balkan country, is allegedly a KGB agents, who has already spread the communist virus to Western academia. Criminale is a powerful and disturbing transgressor figure whose books "appear everywhere", and he wields power on both sides of the divide.

The novel is a typical postmodern mixture of genres - a quest story, horror story, Bildungsroman, university novel, novel of ideas. Significantly Criminale is constructed as a text, and Fransis Gay is his decoder, the liberal humanist. Doctor Criminale is one of the most successful impersonations of multiplicity and multiple identities, of dissolution of boundaries, blurring of distinctions, and loss of certainties, and it is the fear of the inefficiency of old taxonomies to define and explain post-communist experience that the novel is about. The narrator, Francis Jay, and Doctor Criminale are actually doubles, evoking the classical Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which in this case implies the idea of the double as east and west.

My contention is that in Barnes' and Bradbury’s recent "encounters" with Eastern Europe there is no dialogue between the East and the West, no perception of the self as other. The divisive strategies are still instrumental in the artistic and popular imagination and this makes the need to rethink the terms we use to talk about such borderland sites as Eastern Europe and the Balkans in particular, even more pressing.

 URL: http://www.eng.helsinki.fi/doe/ESSE5-2000/yonka.krasteva.35.htm

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Creada: 04/10/2000 Última Actualización: 04/12/2001