on 26 August 2001
The collapse of Communist regimes behind the Iron Curtain in the late 1980s might seem a grim subject for a travelogue and, of course, it is. Stalin 's Nose by Rory MacLean skilfully uses a journey across the former Eastern Bloc in 1989 to provide some insights into what the changes might mean for the people affected.
The book is best described as a black comedy. Rory MacLean's uncle, a former Soviet spy, has died and MacLean visits his widowed aunt Zita at their retirement home in Potsdam before embarking on his epic journey. What he does not reckon with is the aunt's determination to accompany him in order to visit various relatives and friends in Germany, Czechoslovakia (as it was then), Hungary, Poland, Romania and finally Moscow. Amongst other things, she wishes to visit Budapest to obtain new false teeth to replace those stolen by her pet Tamworth pig, Winston - which also caused the death of MacLean's uncle by falling on him from a tree. The aunt, as well as having been married to a Communist, had a brother who served in the SS during World War II. Despite a feisty exterior, Zita finds the journey difficult and ultimately cathartic.
They make the trip in an old and fragile Trabant (with 'go faster' stripes), which eventually disappears into a pothole on the road out of Bucharest. Winston comes with them at Zita's insistence and survives the attentions of various police forces and other people who envisage him as their next meal or as the starting point for their next business. The author's other elderly aunt and a coffin also occupy the Trabant at various points.
The main theme of the book is the beginnings of the slow emergence from the destruction caused by World War II and then forty years of domination by the Soviet Union. These two things were, of course, linked. It is quite heartbreaking to read of how the Red Army delayed helping the Czechs and the Poles, in particular, against the Nazis - until they (the Russians) could liberate the East on their terms.
The real scale of the tragedy is revealed by the little details. These include the Romanian man who has forgotten how to eat an orange, biting into it as if it were an apple and the elderly Polish voters who complain when the electoral officer will not help them to fill in their ballot forms. Then there is the Czech woman who has married the man who condemned her parents to death; the Czech schoolchildren whose marks were averaged out, so that brainy boys with little sporting ability were 'average'; and the 91 year old Hungarian who had held five different nationalities without ever leaving his village. Perhaps because this is on an understandable scale, these small slices of real life are more moving than the somewhat derivative account of the visit to Auschwitz.
The book is threaded through with the relief of escaping the Soviet yoke and the dread of what will come next. At one point, Zita compares having a Communist in the family to owning a Trabant - "you don't like it, but it's necessary to get on." Former Polish dissidents complain that "We lived through the Nazis, through forty years of Communism, but Solidarity is going to finish us off in a year." These are people to whom oppression is so familiar it is almost like a comfortable pair of slippers.
The are any number of lighter moments to life the pessimistic tone. At one point, a Hungarian recounts how, on hearing that the Russians had transportation problems, all the taxis in Hungary were assembled and the Soviet army was offered free taxi rides home (the offer was declined). The large bronze statue of Stalin in Budapest has disappeared: only the jackboots remain - and the nose (hence the book's title), which a friend has stolen and kept for Zita. She cannot remember why she wanted it, maybe as a doorstop? There is also the Polish mechanic who fixes the ailing Trabant. Outside his garage is a sign saying "I have a Masters in Philosophy. I can mend your car and we can talk about Hegel."
Ultimately, as the journey concludes in Moscow, there is a note of hope. MacLean concludes that
"The heinous and false division of east and west became an historical aberration. Europe was whole again. We were one family...responsible not only for the grace of golden Prague...but [also] for the ashen evil of Auschwitz..." After so much human suffering, and despite the struggles ahead, this is a fitting end to a funny and moving account.