Winston the pig fell into Aunt Zita's life when he dropped on to her husband's head and killed him dead. It was a distressing end to a distinguished life of spying. After the funeral Zita, a faded Austrian aristocrat and a vivacious eccentric, refused to remain at home. Instead, together with Winston, she hijacked her nephew Rory and set out on one last ride. Austrians have extended families, their lineage is Europe's history, and Zita had decided to rediscover hers.
In a rattling Trabant they puffed and wheezed across the continent, following the threads of memory. Zita's remarkable east European relations — the angel of Prague, the Hungarian grave digger who had buried Stalin's nose, a dying Romanian propagandist — helped tie together the loose ends of her life. They picnicked at Auschwitz. They met Lenin's embalmer. They visited the impoverished Czech town where the sewers ran with jewels. The journey became Zita's catharsis. As spring warmed the Carpathian mountains, she freed herself of demons.
Humorous and black, touched with the surreal and the farcical, Stalin's Nose is an exceptionally vivid story of a journey from the Baltic to the Black Sea, between Berlin and Moscow, through an eastern Europe divested of fear and free to face its past.
A Tamworth pig, a coffin, two aunts, a battered Trabant and the Berlin Wall. This is a story of the forgotten half of Europe: black, comic, surreal yet painfully real, at once a documentary of a journey and a fantastical narrative.
I made this journey from Berlin to Moscow, through Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania, only weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was early 1990 and eastern Europe was in a state of euphoria. Fifty years of totalitarianism - under first the fascists and then the communists - had ended almost overnight. I met people who hadn't spoken to a foreigner for 50 years - in some countries it had been illegal - and who opened their hearts and told me their stories.
'Stalin's Nose' became a UK Top Ten best-seller and won the Yorkshire Post Best First Work award. It was chosen as a Book of the Year by the 'Sunday Times', the 'Guardian' and the 'Independent on Sunday' and short listed for the Thomas Cook/'Daily Telegraph Travel Book Prize. Alistair McGowen read it on Radio 4's Book at Bedtime. It's been translated into Spanish, Italian and Dutch.