Miroslav Penkov. East of the West: A Country in Stories. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux. Hardcover, 240 pp., $24.00.
Miroslav Penkov’s literary debut, East of the West: A Country in Stories, is a beautifully written, at times sentimental, and almost-always tragicomic story collection that worries itself with much more than the author’s place of origin, Bulgaria. Much can be made of the suggestive subtitle, A Country in Stories, but Penkov’s narratives do more than simply explore his eastern European roots, their mythologies and personal histories. They also confront the American immigrant experience, address notions of transience, and illuminate the restlessness of a modern, global life.
However, the tales in this collection wish to specifically not be about one place or another, but instead delve into the gray area between locales. The story “Buying Lenin,” which appeared in The Best American Short Stories 2008 (originally published in The Southern Review), attempts just that as it charts the biting relationship between a grandfather and grandson, the former staunchly pro-communist, the latter happily headed for school in capitalist America. In this piece Penkov achieves a emotional tug-of-war between the past and present, between the old and the young, between here and there. The result is a transatlantic dialogue that highlights Sinko’s complex sense of guilt and freedom. He does not understand his grandfather’s adherence to outdated communist ideals, but even still, “blood,” the patriarch hopes, “is thicker than the ocean,” and so the young man, despite his international relocation, is pulled toward home and family. Hopelessly out of place in America, he wants more than anything for “the old man to promise he’d wait for [him] out in the yard, under the black grapes of the trellised vine.” Yet the story ends without Sinko heeding his grandfather’s call to come back to Bulgaria, which subtly asserts the notion that home is not a place that can be lost and found again. Rather, once abandoned, our homelands disappear forever, leaving the rest of the world dim and gray since no destination, no future country or land, can ever replace the draw of one’s first community, a force Penkov imagines as a “collective consciousness.” “Buying Lenin” ends with laughter, but a reader cannot forget that Sinko remains alone in United States still yearning to become “a part of [the collective consciousness],” still “want[ing] in,” and still wishing “to dream the dreams of other people.”
East of the West also proves to be a gorgeous primer on Bulgarian history, or at least Bulgarian folklore: “Makedonija” pairs military record with the plight of a seventy-one year-old husband struggling to care for a wife who’s barely survived two strokes; the title story, “East of the West,” draws a romantic note from the dangerous border between Serbia and Bulgaria in 1970; “Cross Thieves” pokes fun at the political instability of Penkov’s homeland in the late nineteen-nineties via the perspective of a wunderkind with photographic memory; and “Devshirmeh” demonstrates how people are both sustained and revealed through the stories they tell, this final piece in the collection employing an ancient tale that the narrator says, “begins with blood…And with blood it ends.”
In that sense A Country in Stories reads not so far from the truth, though in reality Penkov’s ability to balance private sentiment against political and cultural upheaval is what affords this collection its emotional as well as its geographic scope. As a storyteller Penkov concerns himself with the distance between people instead of the distance between nations, such that even tales like the title story “East of the West,” which rely heavily upon place-particular conflict, are memorable not just in their portrayal of provincial circumstance, but also in their depiction of personal longing. The aforementioned story concerns romantic love across a gun-guarded river boundary, and what’s gripping is not the threat of death, but the threat of love lost. In a very striking manner, these stories use people to illuminate place as much as they use place to explain people. The uncanny and reciprocal relationship Penkov constructs between his characters and the worlds they inhabit is, without a doubt, the real triumph of this debut.
To all that one must finally add Penkov’s writing, which is light and liquid; it spills across the page with ease. Some of this comes from the author’s dominant use of the first person perspective, which allows his narrators at-will opportunities for insight and close, emotional explication. Yet Penkov’s real talent lies in his ability to speak with equal authority about both history and character. Steady, striking voices tell these stories, and they relay with confidence and empathy not only the tumultuous Bulgarian past, but also the tumultuous decisions and events of each protagonist’s life. Penkov gives due weight to both the macro and the micro, the final product being a collection which illuminates the universal themes of war, exile and immigration while also paying deference to the nuances of each Bulgarian protagonist’s particular plight. East of the West proves a marvelous debut from a writer with talent and heart, and readers everywhere would do well to trek with Penkov across his beloved eastern European landscape and then follow him to wherever he goes next.