Recently I read East of the West: A Country in Stories by Miroslav Penkhov. The book is a collection of short stories by a Bulgarian writer now living in the U.S., and all of the stories deal with Bulgaria and its people. Penkov’s English prose is more precise and visionary than that written by 99.97% of native English speakers, and as I read I was struck by how the artistry of the book kept me reading, although the subject matter was often repelling. Just to give you a glimpse what life is like in a country where crisis and upheaval are business as usual, here are some of the stories’ plot lines:
- An old man remembers the 1905 Balkan war in Macedonia. Knowing that his brother and his wife’s first lover died at the hands of the Turks, he looks back on how he himself stayed out of the war and now views that as an act of cowardice. Here is a rebel song from the war: “I got no father, I got no mother, father to scorn me, mother to mourn me. My father–the mountain. My mother–the shotgun.”
- A village straddling a river becomes divided between Bulgaria and Serbia when the border is redrawn. To cross the river border without authorization is to be shot. What happens to the village friends and lovers thus divided?
- A young Bulgarian comes to America, to the disgust and horror of his communist grandfather. The young man tries to make it up to Grandpa by bidding on eBay for the corpse of Lenin.
- A 16-year-old Bulgarian girl named Maria, dirt-poor and spiritually bankrupt, begs money to finance an abortion for her not-all-there sister. Then Maria takes the money and personally burns through it in one extravagant evening.
- During yet another collapse of the Bulgarian government, two hopeless teenagers break into a church to steal the cross over the altar, which they mistakenly think is made of gold. What they find instead of a cash source is a dying man. So they go on with what they’re used to doing, which is getting drunk.
- A girl of Turkish ancestry is deported out of Bulgaria to live in poverty in Turkey. She loses both her parents.
Depressing reading? Yup. This isn’t a book you read for light entertainment. But in spite of the repugnancy of the material and often of the characters, the stories are poignant, strong and beautifully written. What especially comes through–somehow, surfacing through the grit and the squalor–is the author’s deep love for his troubled homeland. These stories are not only fine examples of short fiction, they are candid yet affectionate portraits of a torn country. I especially recommend the stories in East of the West to anyone wanting insight into the catastrophic turmoil of the Balkan region.