Miroslav Penkov - East of the West: A Country in Stories
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.
If you get a chance, check out Penkov's website and blog. He discusses some of the stories in East of the West, and gives a brief overview of Bulgarian history. It, like his collection, is worth a look.