Wednesday, July 9, 2008
From the Shelves of the Paco Library
Uncle Peter, a retired Communist spy living in Potsdam, sat in his wheel chair enjoying the garden, when the family’s pet pig fell out of a tree, striking him on the neck and killing him instantly.
The beginning of a good Communist joke? No, more like a fitting symbol of the end of the bad joke that was Communism. Rory MacClean begins his marvelous book, Stalin’s Nose: Travels Around the Bloc (published in 1992), with this true story of his uncle’s demise, and he is soon on the road in a Trabant with his newly-widowed Aunt Zita and the murderer – Winston the pig – on a journey of discovery through the ideological (and, in some instances, the physical) ruins of post-communist eastern Europe. By turns funny and sad, the book explores the soul-deadening impact of Communism, and the lead-booted bureaucracy that seems to arise, inevitably, as a result of man’s attempts to theorize away human nature, as if it were little more than a bogus hypothesis.
On this strangest of road trips, we encounter a host of characters and incidents, some comical, some tragic, but almost all reflecting in some important respect the intrinsically evil, and idiotic, nature of totalitarianism. One of the book’s strengths is the skillful weaving into the narrative of Communism’s collapse some of the kaleidoscopic history of Europe, its peoples and prejudices, and the great episodes that have shaped it and reshaped it, for good or ill, for over a thousand years. But the book is also the intensely personal story of Aunt Zita, and of her efforts to exorcise the ghosts of a past haunted by the twin monstrosities of Communism and Nazism (her family broke with her upon her marriage to a Communist, and her brother was an officer in the SS). Along the way, we discover the delectably ironic story of how she first met Uncle Peter. She had been herding pigs, and she and a large sow took a tumble off of a slippery path. The sow landed on top of her, and she was trapped beneath the life-crushing weight, suffocating. Fortunately, a Red soldier happened upon her, shot the pig, and pulled her out from under. It was love at first sight. Many years later, one of the sow’s distant relatives would avenge the species by snapping Peter’s neck.
A few more vignettes:
Jerzy, a slightly tipsy Pole:
“’Forty years of socialism and still no toilet paper,’ said Jerzy as he reemerged. He… hung his coat on a brawny arm and unscrewed the Wyborowa. He poured the vodka and raised his glass in a toast. ‘The Red Fleet.’ We looked surprised. ‘To the bottom.’ He drained his glass. ‘In Gdansk I meet Russian sailor. He hate Poles and told so. Nothing the matter; we hate Russians also. He say Russians more strong and hard and fast and then, insult, he say Russians better drinkers.’ Jerzy poured another round. ‘So my friends and I take him for drinking: pepper vodka, honey vodka, even Zmijowka, vodka marinated by serpent. Of course, he not take; he only Russian and pass under table. So my friends carry him to tattoo maker. And while he dream of virgin in Minsk we tattoo on his chest a damn big Polish eagle. It much money but worth every zloty.’”
“In Romania corruption was not a vice, it was a tradition. The Greeks of Constantinople, the Phanariots, were a particularly duplicitous people who governed the country when it was an Ottoman vassal. Their voracious greed had perverted the society. The kings and dictators who followed continued to debase public morals. The custom continued even after the December revolution. In Romania’s first free election a million more votes were cast than voters registered. The official news agency attributed the discrepancy to ‘the enthusiasm of the people for democracy.’”
Hell may resemble the Moscow Metro: flawless and sterile. The escalator bore us deep down into Satan’s Versailles, a subterranean palace of blast doors and trains that ran on time. Beautifully crafted lies embellished the walls. Beneath the mosaics of loyal workers, offering their labors – rifles, tractors, and loaves – to an altar of red flags, the masses had moved silently during Stalin’s Terror. In grand marble tunnels the only sound was their shuffling feet. Loiterers were brushed aside. Nothing would delay the heroic march. The world wept gray tears when communism was victorious.
We waited no more than half a minute. A silver train whisked us through the burial grounds of a civilization as dead as Rome.”
A unique combination of travel diary, history, political analysis and farce, Stalin’s Nose is both a fun and an instructive read.