When communism collapsed, state by state, in 1989, young Canadian Rory MacLean was among the first travellers to venture into the world’s newest democracies
When communism collapsed, state by state, in 1989, young Canadian Rory MacLean was among the first travellers to venture into the world’s newest democracies. His intention – he claims in his extraordinary book Stalin’s Nose – was to travel from the Baltic to the Black Sea, exploring his Eastern European ancestry and writing a serious book about ‘Europe in transition’.
What emerged, though, was an altogether more surreal tale, kick-started by the death of his uncle – a former Soviet spy – beneath a falling pig in Berlin, and involving a haphazard Trabant ride through the old Eastern Bloc in the company of his Aunt Zita and the guilty pig.
This bizarre premise sets the tone for newly liberated Eastern Europe itself – half comic, half tragic, still struggling with the legacy of 40 years of Soviet rule. At the heart of MacLean’s story is Aunt Zita, a cantankerous Austrian aristocrat with Second World War English (“What the blazes!”) and a terrifying driving style (‘Zita had never had an accident. The remarkable statistic was more a reflection of God’s benevolence than of her skill.’) Zita’s desire to revisit long-lost relations and acquaintances propels the journey ever onward. She unearths a sister in Prague, a cousin in Brno and another in Tokaj, ‘a distant relation of a great uncle’ in Warsaw. And in Budapest, she tracks down a former gardener, Theodor – who presents her with the Stalin’s nose of the title, a massive conk smashed from a toppled statue of the dictator during the ill-fated 1956 revolution.
‘Now it was before us, three foot high with nostrils the size of skulls, and [Theodor] seemed anxious.‘
‘Zita hesitated. A white blossom settled on her nose. “Very much. Thank you. But what the hell do I do with the bloody thing?” ’
Alongside the quixotic adventures and eccentric cast, MacLean returns again and again to the horrors inflicted on Eastern Europe during the 20th century – Auschwitz, the gulags, the purges and the betrayals.
‘My forebears had killed not as individuals… but as groups – the Cheka, the Iron Guard, the Gestapo, the KGB, to which they had surrendered their individuality. I, a blessèd, blind baby-boomer, child of the long post-war peace, needed to understand how they had become murderers... To know how we can love someone we fear.’
Stalin’s Nose has just been reissued with a new introduction by Colin Thubron (Tauris Parke, £8.99)