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.
I fill up with memories of things long gone the way a gourd fills up with water from rain.
Miroslav Penkov, “Makedonjia,” East of the West: A Country in Stories