On the nose ramble in east Europe

STALIN'S NOSE, Across the Face of Europe, By Rory Maclean (Flamingo, $72).

WHEN Rory Maclean embarks on a journey across eastern Europe in the company of his Aunt Zita, ''a fading European aristocrat'', and Winston, a Tamworth pig, he is understandably apprehensive.

Add to this a battered Trabant with a coffin tied to the roof, and Maclean's original plan to write a book about Europe in transition falls completely by the wayside. What does unfold is a tableau depicting the turmoil of the communist years in eastern Europe as seen through the eyes of various family members and friends as they recount their personal experiences with a mixture of humour and bitterness.

The expedition begins in Potsdam, a crumbling corner of Berlin. Maclean agrees, somewhat foolishly one may think, to take his newly widowed aunt to Budapest on a quest for new dentures. Hers is the gift of the Trabant complete with ''go faster'' stripes and a promise to provide relatives with whom the unlikely duo can stay in the course of their journey.

The first port of call is Dresden, once the baroque jewel of Europe, which stands blackened and crumbling. It is here Zita's friends make the telling observation that ''communism is a good idea but we'd prefer it to be tested on rats''. These are good honest people who cannot understand why communism has not delivered on its promises.

And Stalin's nose? A one-metre high proboscis chipped from that hated symbol of Hungarian bondage - the statue of Stalin in Heroes Square which was hacked to pieces by the oppressed masses in 1956. Inevitably the bronze conk joins Maclean's entourage forreasons we are never quite sure of . . . but somehow it seems fitting.

Maclean recounts his tale with a bittersweet streak of humour which will make you curl up with mirth even as you dwell on the tragedy of communism.

A thought-provoking, side-splitting read.