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BOOK REVIEW : A Sunny Jaunt in a Dark Place and Time : STALIN'S NOSE: Travels Around the Bloc by Rory MacLean ; Little Brown $19.95, 233 pages

April 12, 1993|CAROLYN SEE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The place is Central Europe; the time is the very recent past--after the fall of the Berlin Wall, after Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution, after the removal of Romania's hated dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu.

The narrator, a lighthearted travel writer from the European West, decides he needs to take a trip to check out how this part of the world is holding up under the stress (and the great relief) of current events. He plans "to travel from the Baltic to the Black Sea, across the continent's waist, along the line of the old Iron Curtain. . . ."

But because the writer has family in Central Europe, his trip, and what he will eventually discover, are complicated and screwed up from the very beginning.

The writer's Uncle Peter, much loved, but also an ex-Communist spy, has just perished. He's lived in retirement, just next to a hole by the famous Berlin Wall. A pig named Winston has fallen on his head and killed him.

Peter's wife, Aunt Zita, adopts this falling pig (who has also stolen her dentures), cooks up an amazing meal for her nephew--salmon en croute, pheasant baked in cider, dressed crab and poached asparagus and so on. She then commandeers her writer-nephew to start up her Communist-made jalopy, a temperamental Trabant, push Winston the pig into the back seat and make this trip a family reunion of sorts.

The writer, bemused, says yes to his aunt's idea. He won't be making his orderly trek along the old "Iron Curtain," but maybe--despite Winston-the-pig's distinguished British namesake--Central Europe is far more than those two evocative words have ever suggested.

"Where," the writer muses, "does Europe end? If Europe is the courage to defend the rights of man, does the continent end where fear begins? Are its borders fixed or, like the tide, subject to the pull between sun and moon, of inertia and valor?"

This fateful trip will take Aunt Zita, her nephew, and that ever-growing pig zigzagging across the continent's ample middle.

They begin in Berlin and end in Moscow, swinging through Dresden and Prague, Brno, the great Puszta Plains of Hungary, then Budapest, Krakow (stopping off for a heart-wrenching "picnic" at Auschwitz), then zooming south again to Romania's Sighisoara, Suceava and Bucharest, before ditching the rattly Trabant and taking the train to Moscow.

By the end of the narrative the writer will restate his question: "Where was the end of Europe? The Czechs felt Asia began over the Morava. Hungarians pointed at Romania. Poles looked no further than suburban Praga. The Russians, for their part, believed that the Urals, Siberia, and even Vladivostok on the Pacific were all European. But wherever the border lay it no longer followed the Iron Curtain. We were one family, I realized. . . ."

But even within families, the conflict of the continent has been internalized. Memories are long, hideous mistakes have been made, good people have been betrayed. This novel is cast as a comic work of art, but Aunt Zita herself was both married to a Communist spy and sister to an enthusiastic member of the Waffen SS.

If the conflict of World War II pitted Nazis against Communists, what, in general terms, could have been defined as right ?

Again and again, the nephew-narrator reminds us of the separate fates of Central European countries during the last 50 years: Poland in its death throes in the middle '40s, exterminated by Nazis, while the Russians waited to "liberate" that unfortunate country.

Hungary invaded by Russians in the '50s and hung out to dry by the West, Czechs invaded again by the Russians in the '60s, making a mockery of that hopeful Prague Spring. And even Dresden, after all these years, a pitiful German urban corpse.

Against all this carnage, people still have to live. Against drab Communist housing and hideously polluting industry, Aunt Zita and her nephew lie out at night on the Hungarian plains to count the stars. In each country they encounter friends and relatives who ply them with smoked pork, apricot compote, sauerkraut and wine and vodka as they sit awhile together in pleasant bowers telling stories.

Rory MacLean--not Zita's nephew, but the real English travel writer here--looks at Central Europe with compassionate eyes and divides down the facts with an even hand, except for Romania, where he opines that "there was a dark tide in Romanian affairs, a flood of frustration and fear" that seems endemic to the country, more far-reaching even than Ceausescu's spectacular evil deeds.

"Stalin's Nose" is like no other book I've ever read. It's the difficult history of a part of the world kept secret from us for decades. It's hopeless and hopeful, heartbreaking and farcical at the same time.

The dirty linen of half a continent is vigorously washed out here, rinsed and hung out in the bright sun of knowledge, to bleach, to make sense, to dry.

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