A peculiar trip 'Around the Bloc'

March 12, 1993|By Zofia Smardz | Zofia Smardz,Contributing Writer

Is it possible for a British writer with a name like Rory MacLean to have an eccentric Austrian Auntie Mame with a name like Zita who was married to the Soviet KGB agent responsible for the Berlin Wall and who died when a pig fell on his head?

And is it really possible that the three of them -- i.e., Mr. MacLean, Auntie Zita and Winston the pig (having handily eliminated Uncle Peter from the picture) -- traveled the length and breadth of Eastern Europe in a Trabant, also known as the East German cardboard box on wheels? And that this rattle-trap car gamely survived to the outskirts of Bucharest before being swallowed up by a machine-eating pothole of gigantic proportions? I mean, a Trabant would disintegrate after 100 miles, max. It was a Communist car, after all, with a hair-dryer motor for an engine.

No matter. Somehow, in the course of "Stalin's Nose," Mr. MacLean's madcap account of travels in the Eastern Bloc with his aunt and his porcine Charley, we come to believe in all the outrageous events he tells us occurred, and in all the peculiar people he says crossed their path.

It seems not entirely impossible that the Trabant carried, at various times, not only two or three humans plus the pig, but also a coffin with the perfectly preserved remains of a Czech World War II pilot, or the 3-foot-high bronze nose of Stalin, chipped from a statue during the Hungarian uprising of 1956.

It seems not unbelievable that, on an impulse, a Hungarian Jew carries his mother's ashes in a plastic bag from Budapest to Auschwitz to scatter them on the soil of the place where his father died. It seems almost inevitable that our intrepid travelers should fortuitously happen, in Moscow, to stay with the man charged with preserving Lenin's corpse by way of shock treatments.

This is clearly not your standard travelogue, but then there's nothingvery standard about traveling in the Eastern Bloc, the fall of the Iron Curtain notwithstanding. In language both jaunty and lyrical, Mr. MacLean reveals the absurdity of existence in this misbegotten, half-forgotten region, the surreal quality of his narrative exactly matching the sense that overwhelms you when you cross that decisive boundary between Western and Eastern Europe.

As it happens, because Aunt Zita is a former Communist, many of the connections the travelers make are with other former Communists, now scurrying to stay ahead of the tidal wave of change overtaking their world. Karel, the Czech secret policeman, lands a job in the environment ministry of the new democratic regime; Alajos, the Hungarian collaborator, tries to set up a town forum at the local pub.

Beneath the narrator's colorful colloquy there sounds, as a consequence, the somber voice of guilt and remembrance. It's focus is not on the future, on what lies down the road.

But Mr. MacLean is both thoughtful and insightful. If it's possible to romp through Eastern Europe, Rory MacLean has done it, while at once casting a clear eye on the wounds of recent history, destined to leave scars for decades to come.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Stalin's Nose: Travels Around the Bloc."

Author: Rory MacLean.

Publisher: Little, Brown.

Length, price: 233 pages, $19.95.

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