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East of the West: A Country in Stories Paperback – June 5, 2012
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"... one of the most exciting debut collections in recent memory." --John Freeman, The Boston Globe
"... Penkov's teeming stories accomplish in phrases what lesser writers take chapters to convey... a collection of triumphs." --Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times
About the Author
Miroslav Penkov was born in 1982 in Bulgaria. He moved to America in 2001 and received an MFA in creative writing at the University of Arkansas. His stories have won the BBC International Short Story Award 2012 and The Southern Review's Eudora Welty Prize and have appeared in A Public Space, Granta, One Story, The Best American Short Stories 2008, The PEN / O. Henry Prize Stories 2012, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2013. Published in over a dozen countries, East of the West was a finalist for the 2012 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing and the Steven Turner Award for First Fiction by the Texas Institute of Letters. In 2014-15 he was the literature protégé in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, working with mentor Michael Ondaatje. Penkov teaches creative writing at the University of North Texas, where he is editor-in-chief of the American Literary Review.
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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.
For more, see my blog: [...]
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.
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!
Most recent customer reviews
Well done Miroslav Penkov!
This collection lifts the curtains to an Eastern world not widely known in the West.