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Stalin's Nose: Across the Face of Europe (Tauris Parke Paperbacks) Paperback – 20 Mar 2008
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'Crazy, charming, a delight' --John le Carré
'The most extraordinary debut in travel writing since "In Patagonia". A dark, sardonic and brilliant book which grows in stature with every page.' --William Dalrymple
'As an allegory it is powerful and frequently moving. As a tale it is tremendous fun. It is also a thing of beauty' --Jan Morris
From the Back Cover
Winston the pig fell into Aunt Zita's life when he dropped onto her husband's head and killed him dead. It was a distressing end to a distinguished life of spying for the U.S.S.R. After the funeral Zita, a faded Austrian aristocrat and vivacious eccentric, refuses to remain at home in East Germany. Instead she hijacks her nephew Rory and, with Winston in tow, sets out on one last ride. Austrians have extended families, their lineage is Europe's history and Zita has decided to rediscover hers. In a rattling Trabant the threesome puff and wheeze across the continent, following the threads of memory Zita's remarkable east European relations - the angel of Prague, the Hungarian grave digger who had buried Stalin's nose, a dying Romanian propagandist - help tie together the loose ends of her life. The travelers picnic at Auschwitz. They meet Lenin's embalmer. They visit the impoverished Czech town where the sewers run with jewels. Everywhere they learn what life had truly been like under totalitarian rule. They hear a torrent of life tales, some heartbreaking, some hilarious, all enriched with the joy of telling after decades of enforced silence. Humorous and black, touched with the surreal and the farcical, Stalin's Nose is a true and exceptionally vivid story of a journey from the Baltic to the Black Sea, between Berlin and Moscow, through an eastern Europe divested of fear and free to face the past.See all Product description
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So it's a story and once you realise that this isn't really a piece of travel writing, since there are very few bits where we get a description of the place, then what you find you have is a very amusing story with a fascinating cast of dysfunctional and woe-begotten characters. Our hero (we never learn his name but it sure as hell ISN'T Rory) gets a call from his rather domineering Aunt Zita to inform him that his Uncle Peter (a former key player in the Soviet takeover of the Eastern Block) has been killed by his pet pig, Winston, who fell on him. Apparently this wouldn't have happened if they hadn't taken the wall down in the first place. Winston has run off with Zita's dentures and mislaid them but you can, apparently get good replacements in Budapest! Zita then railroads her nephew into a road trip visiting friends and relatives on the way. Many of these friends and relatives turn out to be former Communists or collaborators - or just plain dysfunctional individuals, beginning to adjust to a post-Communist world itself adjusting to new, as yet undetermined, circumstances.
The whole is a genuinely amusing but also thought-provoking story. Whist MacLean doesn't spend a great deal of time describing places he does give us a sort of superficial snapshot of the great changes taking place by concentrating on his characters. In Czechoslovakia the remains of dead heroes, secretly buried, are being disinterred, as is the real history of the Communist era. In Hungary adjustments are also taking place in an atmosphere of revelation. Poland is seen as heavy with history and the spirit of resistance, whilst Romania is just the same old story but with different labels. Russia is entering the era of the great disillusion. Poverty abounds, alcohol flows. Somewhere in there one can hear the greasing of palms.
MacLean does a super job of helping us see that process of change, coming to terms with the truth, expressing resentment or relief and, of course, survival. Reading this is like entering the dark ages of Modern History and there are very few books that I know of that bring this brief period to life (I'm thinking here of that other great bit of writing, Anne Applebaum's "Between East and West: Across the Borderlands of Europe").
...And it's amusing as well as serious. My hero is Winston, the pig. He sleeps his way across this era of change sleeping in the back of the Trabant, drinking beer and occasionally causing mayhem - I bet he's a Polish pig! Good old Winston.
Starting the journey from the Baltic to the Black Sea, it is derailed in Berlin already, where the author's uncle suffers a rather fantastic end to his life. Fearing for his aunt Zita's sanity (as well as looking for replacement dentures for her), she gets taken along for the journey, together with Winston the Tamworth pig, in the trusty East German steed - the aunt's Trabant.
As they wheeze their way through Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania, and Russia, Zita has to resolve many issues that arose in her complicated past - including a Soviet spy husband, SS officer brother, Austrian aristocrat predecessors, etc. Through this we get an abridged look at some issues plaguing the countries in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as how far from democracy and prosperity the countries were at this early point in their post Communist journey.
It is often incredibly funny, at times quite tragical, shows the mental constructs many were forced to erect around themselves to be able to deal with their situation, the pretty fantastical but nevertheless real stories many a family went through in the time since WW2, as well as the bleak outlook.
Many aspects described in the book have definitely changed since Maclean wrote it, so it has more of a historical significance now. But in capturing the moment of transition, the author did an excellent job and it is a book very much worth reading, if one wants to understand the past and possible futures of the region. If you enjoyed Koestler's Darkness at Noon or Kundera's The Joke, this book is likely up your street as well.
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