Colin Thubron on ‘Stalin’s Nose’

With the publication of ‘Stalin’s Nose’ in 1992, a new and distinctive voice sounded in the field of travel writing. By turns zany, lyrical, troubled, fantastical, Rory Maclean’s first book crashed through the norms of the genre to create a surreal masterpiece. And for this burlesque tour de force the author travelled a region not of comfort but of bizarre human tragedy, as if reminding the reader that laughter arises less from happiness than from the detonations of the unexpected. ‘Stalin’s Nose’ poses, too, a vital question of form: how much of it is true? Is it permissible for a travel writer to invent? And if so, how much, and in what way? Most readers take the reporter’s experience on trust –- for if events have been invented, they lose their power as well as their truth. Somewhere in the book, it is felt, any fictionalising must be acknowledged.

But Maclean overrides the borders between fact and fiction to create a literary species almost his own. A journey in a decrepit Trabant, in the company of a theatrically eccentric aunt, a Tamworth pig and (in Czechoslovakia) the coffin of a long-dead pilot strapped to the roof cannot be the stuff of literal reality. The reader is invited, instead, into a stark, hyper-real world. ‘Stalin’s Nose’ is not so much a travelogue as the intense distillation of a journey, and its crazy progress becomes an allegory of the tortured countries through which the travellers go. For this is the Eastern Europe of 1989-90, emerging from its Communist nightmare into a world of smoke and mirrors, confronted by its own delusions and half-truths, hypocrisies and self-blindings. Nazism and Stalinism have become interchangeable myths, bodied out in personal lives. Comedy mirrors tragedy. Moral confusion reigns.

Above all, this drama is acted out through the book’s central character, the author’s zestful, eccentric, belligerent aunt Zita –- a faded beauty with memorably misaligned ears -– who clings to the shreds of her Communism. Piece by piece her world is revealed as a moral shambles. As she and the author travel from Berlin to Prague, Brno to Budapest, they are greeted by cousins who were secret policemen, state informers, only occasionally heroes. Her brother Oto, whom Zita had adored, turns out to have been an SS officer at Auschwitz. Her husband, whose death is announced in the book’s opening sentence (the Tamworth pig falls on his head) is revealed in ever blacker colours. Yet the author’s affection for the mercurially human Zita shines through all her crankiness. Inhuman acts horrify him; but human beings, he seems to say, are too fragile, often too ludicrous, for the withholding of compassion.

For a while the travellers are accompanied by Zita’s sister Vera, who had fought against the Nazis in the Slovak resistance, been betrayed under Communism and fled to the West. She is both Zita’s opposite and mirror image, and they battle derisively against one another. In Banská Bystrica, listening to an old phonograph belonging to a cousin, they hear the voice of their long-dead brother.

‘It doesn’t sound anything like him.’ Zita turned to Vera. ‘What’s he singing?’ A girl’s voice accompanied the song. ‘And who’s the warbler?’

‘It’s you, you’re singing the SS song together,’ she replied. Vera laughed the sort of laugh lovers make when confessing to infidelity. ‘A Communist as a fiancé and a fascist for a brother, I don’t know how you resolved that one.’

‘And bloody you as a sister, that was the bugger in the wood-pile. Oto was no fascist. He was an ordinary soldier and handsome to boot.’ But it wasn’t true.

‘Ordinary soldiers didn’t volunteer for the SS.’ But they did.

‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ Zita’s voice was shrill. ‘Oto had no choice.’ She held her throat as if to strangle herself.

The ancestry of this remarkable book is not to be found in British travel-writing. Rory Maclean is a Canadian, who started his working life as a film-maker, and he has said that it is film -– its scenic structuring and deployment of dialogue for driving a plot forward -– which influenced him most potently. While still in his early twenties, a three-year stint as a film-maker in Berlin -– and a voracious reading of Eastern European literature (Bulgakov, Kundera) –- ignited an enduring fascination with Cold War Europe.

Early in Stalin’s Nose he expresses his need to understand how generations of his (partly fictionalised) aunts and uncles had become, in effect, murderers. ‘My forebears had killed not as individuals, as individuals they were honourable, but as groups –- the Cheka, the Iron Guard, the Gestapo, the KGB – to which they had surrendered their individuality… I wanted to try to comprehend the discrepancy between the morality of a man and of men. To know how we can love someone we fear.’ How do people grow blind to their human experience, clouding it with dogma, worshipping distant tyrants? ‘We loved them because they freed us from the burden of self; but we feared them because with our surrender of personality they controlled us.’ But the answers to Maclean’s questions, in the end, lie deep in the texture of ‘Stalin’s Nose’ itself, in its evocation of lives surrendered to phantoms, lives described with a unique mixture of comic bravado, underlying horror and a pervasive tenderness.