Miroslav Penkov (2011) "East of the West: A Country in Stories". New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Hardcover edition, 226 pages, P205. ISBN 978-0-3741-1733-7. Available through Exclusive Books.
East of the West is Miroslav Penkov's first book. Born in Gabrovo, Bulgaria, in 1982, raised after four in Sofia, he went to the United States of America (US) at 19 and earned a degree in psychology, followed by an MFA in Creative Writing. He began winning awards for his short stories in 2007. His Buying Lenin appeared in The Southern Review, took the Eudora Welty Prize in fiction and was reprinted in Best American Short Stories (2008). He is currently an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of North Texas and editor of the American Literary Review. East of the West is a collection of eight short stories that are wonderful to read. I've also listened to them as an audio book spoken by five different voices. The last story, Devshirmeh, becomes increasing far out as it is swallowed up by the story within it. It is easy to understand why Buying Lenin won awards. I also like the tale of a Muslim bagpipe maker, The Night Horizon, who has no son to pass his skills on to; and A Picture with Yuki that sensitively captures layers of cross-cultural perspectives: American, Japanese, Bulgarian and Roma (Gypsy). Penkov writes with a wry eye for pathos and humour.
The first story, Macedonia, is made up of the reminiscences of an old man born in 1898. He is now 71, living with his spouse in a nursing home near the Vitosha Mountains outside Sofia. He finds that he is jealous of a man 60 years dead after having by accident found letters by Peyo Spasov to his wife Nora when she was only 16 written from the front fighting against the Turks in Macedonia. Peyo's last entry in his diary before he died is (page 22):
I got no father, I got no mother,
Father to scorn me,
Mother to mourn me,
My father - the mountain.
My mother - the shotgun.
Interlaced with Peyo's tale is that of the teller: how his brother died, and the troubles of their daughter Buryana and grandson who come to stay with them because of marital problems.
A heart-rending story is East of the West about the love affair between a boy, nicknamed "Nose" and a girl, Vera, divided by a river, one living in Bulgaria, and the other in Serbia. In the river was a drowned church whose dome and cross were above the level of the flowing current. The lovers would meet there at night so they would not be seen by the patrolling border guards who would shoot to kill "wet backs".
"I first met Vera in the summer of 1970, when I was six. At that time my folks and I lived on the Bulgarian side of the river, in the village of Bulgarsko Selo, while she and her folks made home on the other bank, in Srbsko. A long time ago these two villages had been one - that of Staro Selo - but after the great wars Bulgaria had lost land and that land had been given to the Serbs. The river, splitting the village in two hamlets, had served as a boundary - what lay east of the river stayed in Bulgaria and what lay west belonged to Serbia" (page 28).
It has taken Nose 30 years to finally plan to ask Vera, his cousin, "Will you marry me?" This is what happens when a river divides you. Buying Lenin is wonderful in its fancifulness. Sinko loves and respects his grandfather. Grandpa has remained a diehard Communist through thick and thin. He joined the Communists in the fighting in 1944 and has been a survivor ever since. Grandpa is so committed to the party that he had the name of their village in Bulgaria changed to "Leningrad". Grandpa's life has remained a "Communist love story". His favourite reading was the collected works of Lenin, particularly Volume XII. When Sinko left in 1999 to study in America, Grandpa labelled him a "rotten capitalist pig" and on the back of an old ballot paper from 1991, he wrote, "have a safe flight" and everyone in the village signed it.
Sinko saw on eBAY an unusual auction, "CCCP Creator Lenin. Mint Condition ...You are bidding for the body of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The body is in excellent condition and comes with a refrigerated coffin that works on both American and European current" (page 72), he thought it was a scam, but clicked "Buy it Now". "Congratulations Communist Dupe ... You bought Lenin". It is the best of the best Red The Letter is Maria's story. She is 16 and in the care of her Grandmoms. Grandpa is married to his bottle of rakia . "I'm my mother's daughter - a bitch. I lie and steal". Her mother is off in the city. Her father is working in England. She has a twin-sister Magda who she believes has been "left like an orphan"; she is in a home, "because there is no other place she could be". Grandmoms says to Maria, "only men can afford to be uneducated ... women need to develop their brains" (page 81). Maria wonders what happened to Magda's brain? But she knows enough to tell Maria "I got something alive in my belly", but not how it got there. When it is obvious to the home, Magda will be kicked out. The letter Maria writes is to Pops in England "to tell him what has happened and ask for help". Can a kiss with Missis be worth one thousand dollars? If Maria gets it what will she actually do with it?
Yuki is his Japanese wife. They live together in Chicago. They want a baby, but something is wrong with her fallopian tubes. Maybe in Bulgaria doctors can help her and it won't cost a fortune. He reminds Yuki, "Good things happen to good people". She is not so sure. "Bulgarian crap... it doesn't work. Nothing works here". For a respite they escape Sofia to his grandparents' empty vacation house 200km away in the country. Yuki is different. Everyone wants to have pictures taken with her. Yuki is excited to find there are Gypsies living outside the village. Yuki's desire to drive the family's old Moskvich and her meeting with a Gypsy boy will have unexpected consequences - a life for a life. "A girl with no breast storms inside the cafe to tell us the government has fallen and there will be no school today. Someone throws a beer bottle at her so she will shut the door. It is minus five outside but in the schoolyard cafe it's just right" (page 125).
Thus opens Cross Thieves, the story of Rado, the Amazing Rado, with a photographic memory - one glance at the page of a book and he can regurgitate it word for word. In a declining economy and inflation where "the zeros keep piling up" maybe his father can profit from such a skill. When he was six there was a newspaper article about him - "Phenomenal Memory Turns Kid into a Walking Encyclopeadia". A jar was passed with a label, "Amazing Rado's Scholarship Fund". But it does have its shortcomings, as they will learn to their chagrin. Rado, with his friend Gogo, turns "stealing into a humanitarian mission" (page 132). Does that include "stealing from churches?In The Night Horizon Kemal's father raises her as a boy at their home in the Rhodope Mountains. Kemal's hair was kept shaved so she would look like a boy. When Kemal was six, father presented her with a bagpipe. When she could play it he told her, "You are a conqueror of songs now" (page 158). When his wife, Zenap, protested her daughter's name, he told her, "To make bagpipes you need a man's name". Then Bulgarian Turks were forced to have Bulgarian names and new passports. The desire to heal his wife through the healing music of a hundred bagpipes can only lead to disaster.