on July 13, 2011
The stories in Miroslav Penkov's debut collection, East of the West, are by turns dark, funny, full of both hope and despair, and a couple are even a little mythic, but the one thing they all share is their quality. Simply put -these stories are good.
The first three stories in this collection, "Makedonija," "East of the West," and "Buying Lenin," really floored me. I think you'd be hard pressed to find a better opening three stories in a debut collection, especially from such a young writer (Penkov is only 29 years old). In "Makedonija," an old man in a nursing home in Sofia, Bulgaria (where several of the stories take place) finds love letters to his wife from a man fighting for Macedonia's freedom in 1905. She has saved the letters for over sixty years, and now that she is partially paralyzed and mute from multiple strokes, her husband begins reading her the letters. It's a moving story with a strong voice, and the image at the end is truly great. In the title story, a town is divided by a river, and after one of the many Bulgarian wars, the town is divided along the river. On the East is Bulgaria and on the West is Serbia. Every five years officials allow the town to have a reunion, and during these reunions the narrator and his cousin, Vera, meet up and begin a kind of love affair or courtship. It takes the narrator thirty years to ask Vera to marry him, and though I don't want to give the ending away, things don't turn out they way the narrator has planned. In "Buying Lenin," winner of the 2007 Eudora Welty Prize and chosen by Salman Rushdie for inclusion in the 2008 Best American Short Stories, the narrator, who has come to America from Bulgaria to attend college, exchanges rather contentious phone calls with his grandfather (who still believes in the Communist party) about their differing ideals. The narrator, as a joke and a kind of apology, buys Lenin's corpse for his grandfather off eBay, and when the narrator next calls his grandfather to admit how unhappy he is in America, he is surprised when his grandfather tells him a large crate with Lenin's body showed up on his doorstep.
My summaries don't do these stories any justice; in fact, they resist summary like great stories often do. These, and the rest of the stories in the collection, are complex stories that effortlessly weave in Bulgarian history and culture. Perhaps I shouldn't admit this, but often when I read work by foreign writers I don't feel completely grounded in the story or connected to the events. Though much of what happens in Penkov's stories is completely foreign to me (and I would guess many American readers), I never felt lost or that I was missing some key element or cultural reference, but at the same time, I never felt like I was reading a history text, either. This is to say there is a great balance in these stories. Penkov seems to understand what his readers need, and he doesn't fail to give it to us.
I'd put East of the West up there with Alan Heathcock's Volt as the best debut collection I've read so far this year.
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on July 1, 2011
Generally speaking, unreliable narrators tend to stump student readers, naïve and experienced alike. While bookworms notice implicit characterization, ponder subtle themes, and discern the meaning of motifs, they often believe they can trust a story's narrator. In the two times that I have taught Miroslav Penkov's story, "Buying Lenin," not one student has second-guessed, or at least done so aloud, the reliability of Penkov's first-person, college-aged narrator.
Penkov's newly released story collection, East of the West, abounds with inexperienced, confused, distraught, and aging narrators--in short, narrators who lack access to truth, and who, in their perplexed musings, threaten the very idea of a singular truth. Yet Penkov doesn't explicitly portray his unreliable narrators as undependable; unlike William Faulkner's notoriously biased, unwell, and volatile narrators, as exemplified in The Sound and the Fury, Penkov's offer the illusion of stability, as they bestow wisdom on their fellow characters and conceive of marvelous plans. It is only in focusing on Penkov's representations of his narrator's consciences that a reader realizes she cannot trust the "I" who narrates. By making us privy to his narrator's most intimate thoughts, Penkov not only shrinks the psychic distance between character and reader, but also endears the reader to his precious and precocious storytellers.
"Buying Lenin," a story that Penkov altered drastically since its publication in the 2008 edition of The Best American Short Stories, funnels dichotomies, West versus East and capitalism versus communism, into two main characters, the narrator and his grandfather. A tale of ideals found and lost, "Buying Lenin" captivates the reader with nostalgic flashbacks, astute detail, and telling allusions to the volumes of Lenin as well as to his bodily remains.
"I did not expect to stumble upon an auction for Lenin's corpse. CCCP Creator Lenin. Mint Condition, it said. 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. The Buy It Now button indicated a price of five dollars flat." (72)
The title story, "East of the West," which begins with the chronological conclusion of the series of events, reverberates all the more powerfully for doing so. Again, Penkov creates doubles: a river divides Serbia from Bulgaria, West from East, and lover from lover. While other stories juxtapose the East and the West, this one centers not on one side or the other, but on the very fact of their division. The grass, we learn, is always greener on the other side, as the Serbians long for a lost heritage and the Bulgarians for denim jeans.
Although the traditional bildungsroman assumes the form of the novel rather than the short story, East of the West appears bildungsromanesque. One gets the sense that the characters who populate these stories represent a composite character, of sorts, who grows up and tries to find his (or her) way in a world of splintered hemispheres. Penkov's stories offer upsetting and beautiful vignettes of life stages, including growing up, losing family members, caring for disabled siblings, adjusting to a culture other than one's own, falling in love, having children, and losing love. At once distressing and startling, intricately crafted and gracefully written, Penkov's collection itself serves as a guiding narrator, a means of safe transport into and across a fractured world.
on February 18, 2013
I really loved this collection of short stories. The author has managed to find the perfect balance between historical events, folklore fiction and modern experiences. The stories so accurately portrayed the Bulgarian national psychology and at the same time they were so magical that I found myself transported back in time to my childhood. As a Bulgarian living abroad, I could completely relate to the feeling of melancholy, the struggle to preserve one's identity and the precious time spent at home.
I read the book in English and I have to say I was impressed with how well the author had incorporated typical Bulgarian phrases that even readers who were not at all familiar with Bulgaria or the Bulgarian language would find very easy to understand.
I highly recommend this book!
on July 29, 2012
A sense of disconnection, even alienation, can occur any place, any time, as the stories in this collection attest. Written by a young Bulgarian immigrant to the US, the protagonist of each story is somehow distanced or isolated, even if he (or she) is in the land of his birth.
The "east" of the title refers to Bulgaria's location, part of the former Eastern Bloc of Communist countries, now grappling with capitalism and democracy. And each main character strives to find a place in whatever new order is arising.
Penkov leaps from an old man struggling with his wife's dementia as well as new information about an old love who died years ago, to a boy's infatuation with an untouchable cousin, to an immigrant revisiting the old country in search of a cure for his wife's infertility and his own secret shame. The work also illustrates the basic truths of several American homilies: home is where the heart is; and east, west, home is best.
In its attention to detail, its well drawn characters and surges of emotion, his writing gives the reader faith in the universality of good literature regardless of the author's birth place. An exceptional and unusual array of views of life, enjoyable to all.
on June 25, 2011
This debut collection of short stories is a superb read. Miroslav Penkov writes about ordinary people, living ordinary lives, yet he is able to capture the lives of his characters in such rich, soulful, and meaningful ways; this especially holds true in `A Picture with Yuki,' and `Devshirmeh.' While the stories in this collection are humorous, with a handful of laugh-out-loud moments, they are equally dark and melancholic.
on February 29, 2016
Miroslav Penkov's East of the West is subtitled "A Country in Stories", which is largely correct. Penkov is a Bulgarian by birth who moved to the United States when he was 18 but apparently writes in both English and Bulgarian. This collection ranges from the national struggles of Bulgaria to the experience of contemporary Bulgarian expats in the United States. Like many short story collections, the quality varies from the competent, if unremarkable, to the original and quite good.
“Makedonija” jumps between the late 60s and the acts of Bulgarian nationalist revolutionaries in what was then southern Serbia with an old man discovering very old love letters to his hospitalized wife from a young man who perished in that fighting. The idea of discovering a past affair of a long-term spouse seems shop-worn.
“East of the West” had a similarly shop-worn-feeling premise, with a boy and a girl who developed a relationship separated by a river that was also the Yugoslavian-Bulgarian border. The basis for their meeting, that the fact that the separated communities used to be one village leads to the permission of a once-every-five-year reunion of the villages, was original and believable and the dynamic of the relationship, which included the opportunity for the Bulgarians to get their hands on Western goods from their better-off Yugoslav neighbors, was a nice touch. The dynamics of the actual relationship, and the resolution of that relationship, was also quite good.
“Buying Lenin” has the most original ending of the lot; in fact, one of the most original endings I’ve come across. The portrayal of the widening rift between the unnamed narrator and his grandfather is well-done. The former is West-oriented, with him going to study in American shortly after the end of the Cold War. His grandfather, an unyielding Leninist, retires to his home village and tries to reconstruct a Communist-era village. The dynamic is convincing and the resolution, as I said, is excellent. Although many of the stories take place, in whole or in part, after the end of the Cold War, “Buying Lenin” is the one that confronts that divide most explicitly.
“The Letter” was a good character study. Maria was born at the end of the Cold War and her “lost” status is a good metaphor for uncertain paths ahead. Her father works in England, her sister, mentally disabled, lives in an orphanage and she lives with her grandmother and steals. One set of characters she deals with are a couple, a retired diplomat from the British embassy and his Bulgarian wife, who affects English mannerisms, and are a decent representation of the post-Cold War opening of the east.
“A Picture With Yuki” is another story of an expat and his relationship with his home country. Unlike the student in “Buying Lenin”, the narrator here comes home to Bulgaria with Yuki, his Japanese-born wife, to obtain affordable in vitro treatment so they can conceive. I liked the portrayal of Yuki’s uneasiness, being in essence now a double foreigner. The tension between them and the narrator’s family, who weren’t on board with his marriage, is quite convincing. I also liked the tension between the narrator’s favorable view of his homeland and his wife’s discomfort. This is heightened by a tragic accident that occurs in the story.
“Stealing Crosses” has an interesting premise about a teenager with an eidetic memory. His father had attempted to capitalize on that but the boy had become, at most, a minor celebrity and he spends his time engaged in various petty thefts—including stealing a golden cross from a church. The story also did a good job of paralleling his disappointed, hardscrabble life with the political chaos of post-Cold War Bulgaria. His idealization of an ancient Bulgarian past when they were feared steppe nomads was an apt touch.
“The Night Horizon” is a departure in that it is set in Cold War Bulgaria and deals with a family of ethnic Turks at a time when the Bulgarian government is trying to take away their identity by, among other things, forcing them to take Bulgarian names. The narrator is a girl named Kemal (a boy’s name) whom her father teaches to follow in his trade of making bagpipes. In addition to the normal pressures, there is also her father’s manic attempt to make 100 bagpipes in the belief that they will save his sick wife. Kemal’s voice is engaging and authentic and the change of emphasis is refreshing.
“Devshirme” is set in Texas, giving the book its third Bulgarian expat. A divorcee, the narrator lives with in Texas with a local (who is also his landlord) with whom he has a friendly, if squabble-filled relationship. The story takes place during a weekend in which he has custody of his daughter, his wife having left him for a richer Bulgarian expat. The story of their weekend together runs parallel to a story the narrator tells his daughter of a janissary who was sent to take the narrator’s ravishing ancestor to the Sultan. The development of the janissary story later develops some parallels with the narrator’s circumstances that are striking with being blunt instruments.
Penkov does a fine job of portraying his country, both its turbulent state at the end of the Cold War and much of the drama of its past and this is a largely fine read.
on January 28, 2013
I read this book in Bulgarian first and than in English. Being a native Bulgarian this has made a wonderful gift to a few of my American friends and they all have given it great reviews. It is well written and it is a wonderful mixture of fiction and actual historic events.
on April 13, 2015
As a student in a short story class taught by Penkov, I decided to familiarize myself with his work. What I found in the pages, though, was a delightful surpise. This collection is brimming with life. Like Kundera or Chekhov, your mind will wander back to certain scenes from this collection when you least expect them. A recommended read for those fans of subtle, poignant prose.
on October 12, 2012
I am not a great fan of short stories but these felt magical. I could not put my Kindle down until I finished all of them.
Note to the publisher: Why isn't lending allowed for this book? My wife bought the Kindle edition and I had no way to read it on my Kindle! Shame!
on December 23, 2012
Very good point of view from immigrants perspective. Highly recommended reading for holiday season. Please read it. You will learn more for the world out there.