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East of the West: A Country in Stories

by Miroslav Penkov

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http://www.mytwostotinki.com/?p=61

A remarkable debut

Miroslav Penkov’s “East of the West” is a collection of short stories written by the Bulgarian-born (1982) author that lives as an assistant professor of English in Denton/Texas. Penkov writes in English.

A grumpy old man (in ‘Makedonija’) in a nursing home in Communist Bulgaria, just outside Sofia. He is taking care of his wife who is seriously handicapped after two strokes. Only the visits of his daughter and grandson give his life some structure beside the nursing home routine with its meager meals (“Dear God, I remember eating better during the Balkan war”). The radio – we write the year 1969 – reports the news that is sarcastically commented by the protagonist: “The Communist Party is great again, more jobs for the people, less poverty. Our magnificent Bulgarian wrestlers have earned even more gold. Good night comrades, be safe in your sleep.”

What makes the story different and interesting from other stories of old people in similar circumstances is that the husband discovered recently that his wife was keeping a secret from him during all the years of their marriage. Hidden in a box she kept a diary in the form of love letters written by a young man whom she intended to marry in her youth. But the man perished in the fights of the Bulgarian komitatshi against the Ottoman Turks in the Macedonia of 1905.

The romance between this colorful war hero and the protagonist’s wife happened long before the narrator first met her. So technically there is no reason to be jealous. And yet – did she love him more than she loved her later husband (who blames himself to have always been a coward during his life)? An embarrassing question that even the young grandson raises once the protagonist decides to read the letters aloud to his wife. Yes, he is jealous and he wishes to be that other man who wrote such love letters to his wife while fighting so bravely against the Turks. The narrator feels a huge gap between himself and the war hero – he the peasant son always tried to avoid trouble, he who didn’t go to war (his brother went gladly), he who didn’t join the Communist fighters in 1923 that were preparing the so-called November uprising (his brother did and paid with his life for it), he who pretended not to recognize his dead brother and who forced his own mother to do the same because he was afraid of retributions if they did, he who stoically waited the regimes coming and going, just trying to protect his family from the cold hand of history.

But something strange happens to me as a reader here. While in the beginning I admire the war hero for his courage and devotion which seems to contrast very favorably with the alleged cowardice of the narrator, it dawns on me while the story is unfolding that protecting your loved ones, being there for them when they need advice or a strong shoulder to lean on (like the protagonists daughter whose marriage is falling apart), or taking care of your handicapped wife every minute of the day requires another kind of courage that maybe the war hero didn’t have. Sure, it is more glamorous to be a romantic war hero than to wipe your drooling wife’s mouth with a napkin when she tries to keep her food, or when you try to console your only child that is losing herself as a result of the failed marriage of hers with words and gestures that seem to be utterly inadequate but that as it turns out have nevertheless a consoling effect.

This first masterful story sets the tune in Penkov’s first book. Many of the stories describe the life of Bulgarians in a time of transition. They make plans, like the young man in “East of the West” who grows up in a village on the Serbian border and who after he lost his whole family travels to Belgrade to finally marry the girl with whom he is in love since his youth. They learn English in order to provoke their communist grandfathers and use the first opportunity to run away to America (“Buying Lenin”). But their plans turn out to fail, or even worse: they can realize their (usually escapist) desires and end up as homesick emigrants in some small godforsaken town in rural Texas (“Devshirmeh”). None of them seems really happy, and when in one story everything seems to be fine for the protagonist and his Japanese wife ("A picture with Yuki"), fate is striking and from one moment to the next everything turns upside down.

There is a great sadness and melancholy in almost all these stories. A sadness and melancholy that is familiar to me and which seems so typical for many of my wonderful Bulgarian friends. But even in its sad stories, this book is not free of hope, a very nice humor, sometimes full of sarcasm but also of tenderness. And almost all stories teach you a lesson: sometimes you have to lose almost everything in your life – because this means that you also lose the ties that bind you to a place, to people, to situations that prevent you from being really free, from really embarking on to new horizons. Or as ‘Nose’, the hero of ‘East of the West’, the story that gave the book the title says after a terrible disappointment: “”I’ve never felt so good before,”, I say, and mean it…I am no river, but I’m not made of clay.”

I very strongly recommend this wonderful book. If you want to get a flavor of Bulgaria, or just read a collection of touching, masterfully written stories, this is the book for you.

Miroslav Penkov: East of the West, Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2011

You can find additional information on the author's website:

http://miroslavpenkov.com/

(All rights reserved: http://registry.dmrights.com/asset.jsp?assetId=AAA-1100-01-AAA-039903&token=...) ( )
  Mytwostotinki | Dec 14, 2015 |
Stories can reveal much about a people, culture or nation. They tend to reflect not only tradition but the variety and evolution of beliefs and societal viewpoints. Although Miroslav Penkov now lives and teaches in the United States, his debut collection of short stories provides insight into his native Bulgaria a reader would never pick up in a travelogue or similar work.

The title itself, East of the West: A Country in Stories, could be a definitive précis of the book. Penkov's stories tell of life in and the people of Bulgaria in a guileless, congenial fashion. They reflect the mix that is part of Bulgaria, a country that may long for the West but retains pride in its Eastern roots. At least here, the history of Ottoman rule, the longstanding issues of the Balkan states, and the installation and fall of Communism remain relevant.

What role does history play in Bulgarian society? The first story, "Makedonija," opens with: "I was born just 20 years after we got rid of the Turks." It proceeds to recount the man's discovery of love letters his wife received in 1905 from a soldier fighting to free Macedonia from Turkish rule. The title story is set in two hamlets on the opposite banks of a river. They used to be one one village but following the Balkan Wars and World War I, the hamlet on the west side of the river is in Serbia and the one on the east is in Bulgaria. Set in part in the 1970s, the story tells of a romance between a boy and a girl on opposite sides of the river. "The Night Generation," meanwhile, involves a family proud of its Turkish ethnicity but caught up in the Communist government's late 1984 directive forcing citizens of Turkish heritage to adopt Bulgarian names.

The divergent generational views of the Communist era are more fully seen in "Buying Lenin," which seems to have at least a touch of autobiography to it. It tells of a Bulgarian who comes to America in 1999 to attend the University of Arkansas, Penkov's alma mater, and his exchanges with his grandfather, who fought for the Communists in 1944 and rose in the national party. With a touch of love, the grandfather and grandson call each other names like "you rotten capitalist pig" and "you communist dupe." When the grandfather's village reverts to communist times, the grandson goes on eBay to but him Lenin's corpse.

East of the West is marked with a touch of humor that can at times seem to make the stories more identifiable. Thus, when the grandson arrives in Arkansas, the people who pick him up at the airport hand him a book, telling him "These are the words of our Savior. The world of our Lord." The grandson replies, "Oh, Lenin's collected works. Which volume?"

Likewise, the opening paragraph of "Makedonija" almost completely sets the curmudgeonly character of the narrator for us. After telling us his birth after defeating the Turks makes him 71, he says,

And yes, I'm grump. I'm mean. I smell like old men do. I am a walking pain, hips, shoulders, knees and elbows. I lie awake at night. I call my daughter my grandson's name and I remember the day I met my wife much better than yesterday, or today. August 2, I think. 1969. Last night I pissed my bed and who knows what joy tonight will bring?

Yet East of the West isn't exclusively about Bulgaria. Parts of it also relate to the American experience. In "Buying Lenin," we get a sense of both acclimation to America but at the same time the sense of homesickness the narrator is surprised to encounter. And "Devshirmeh" tells of the life of a Bulgarian man who wins a green card in the lottery, comes to the U.S. with his wife and infant daughter but now lives the life of a divorced father who barely makes ends meet. Still, he seeks to instill in his daughter a sense of their heritage and background and how blood -- family -- can lead a person to set aside the worst in themselves.

Ultimately, the book is about the Bulgarian experience, whether there or as a Bulgarian living in America. While it would be unfair to call this Eastern European or Bulgarian literature, it is a fine introduction to some inventive, enjoyable writing and Bulgaria itself.

(Originally posted at A Progressive on the Prairie.)
1 vote PrairieProgressive | Jun 15, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374117330, Hardcover)

A grandson tries to buy the corpse of Lenin on eBay for his communist grandfather. A failed wunderkind steals a golden cross from an Orthodox church. A boy meets his cousin (the love of his life) once every five years in the river that divides their village into east and west. These are Miroslav Penkov's strange, unexpectedly moving visions of his home country, Bulgaria, and they are the stories that make up his charming, deeply felt debut collection.

In East of the West, Penkov writes with great empathy of centuries of tumult; his characters mourn the way things were and long for things that will never be. But even as they wrestle with the weight of history, with the debt to family, with the pangs of exile, the stories in East of the West are always light on their feet, animated by Penkov's unmatched eye for the absurd.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:02:48 -0400)

Collects stories inspired by the author's native Bulgaria, including the tales of a grandson who tries to buy Lenin's corpse on eBay for his grandfather and a boy who meets a cousin every five years on the river that divides their village.

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