Reading Rory Maclean’s “Stalin’s Nose”

Stalin's nose

It’s strange to read a book that makes you feel repelled by and nostalgic for its subject matter all at once. Especially one that features a pet pig.* If I had to pick a single word to describe Stalin’s Nose it would be probably be ‘melancholy’. It’s always been marketed as a travel book, but it isn’t really. Or it is, but that’s not the point. It’s barely even factual. Instead, it’s a meditation on the political hysteria of the 20th century in Europe: the way different ideologies swallowed up perfectly nice people and turned them into….Nazis, among other things. The people in this book are like a Baskin Robbins of extremism: 31 flavors or more. Not that that tendency is unique to the 20th century, or Europe. We’re all such joiners.

I’ve been wanting to take a trip to Eastern Europe for a long time, preferably in a really shitty car, preferably starting in Berlin, so you can imagine that a book about a car trip that begins in Berlin and ends in Moscow, and features multiple car-breakdowns, would be ALL up my alley. But of course, this book was written in 1991, and Maclean may as well have visited the surface of Mars, as far as replicating his journey today goes. Not that you’d necessarily want to. He transports a corpse and an eccentric aunt named Zita through the blasted landscape of late-Soviet industrialism. Really, it sounds like the apocalypse. And yet, can you imagine visiting a place that had been essentially closed off to Westerners for two generations? There’s such ambivalence towards democracy and capitalism from the people Maclean meets. Maybe because in so many of the places he visits, nothing has really changed with the retreat of communism. At least not yet. We tend to stay the same even when our ideologies, or names, or homes change. Wherever you go, there you are. It’s interesting, in the age of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ and self-actualization, to read a travel book that reminds you that that’s still mostly true.

Which reminds me: I have been craving a chicken finger sub with provolone cheese, mayonnaise, and sautéed onions for eight years. Why hasn’t this delicious assault on your circulatory system ever made it out of the Northeast? I WILL WRITE A TRAVEL BOOK WHERE I GO THERE AND FIND OUT.

*I lied.

 

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