Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Miroslav Penkov's East of the West: A Country in Stories

Penkov, Miroslav. East of the West: A Country in Stories. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

I read this collection of short stories on the recommendation of my daughter Helen, and her boyfriend Max. I am not disappointed but completely gratified. I found myself looking forward more than usual to the intervals during the day I get to devote to reading and am sorry to put the book down. The stories are about Bulgaria, Bulgarians, and Bulgarian expatriots in the United States, separated from their families, their language, and the tenacious remnants of culture that have survived invaders from the Ottoman Empire to the Soviet Empire. These stories portray an extreme and, I guess, blood soaked country, with an impoverished population, resisting imperial pressures at the same time that they look reluctantly to the West for something better. "Makedonija," tells the story of an old man's love for his ailing wife, "East of the West," is a tragic story of families divided by politically motivated boundaries and  a younger generation whose passions are stronger than their fear of death.  "Buying Lenin," is about a young man who, in opposition to his party faithful grandfather, tenaciously learns English with the intention of studying in the United States. Once there, despite his language skills, the young man finds that he is not connecting with fellow students or faculty, and as he isolates himself, he seeks to reconnect with his grandfather.  "The Night Horizon," is a striking story that seems to be in the present and the past at the same time. A father raises his infant daughter as a boy so that she can learn his craft of making bagpipes. At the same time, her mother becomes very ill and connected to tubes and bags of fluids. Set apart from the other children because of the way her father has raised her, her father also keeps her from her mother--no hugs or kisses, no comfort for either of them. Their isolation intensifies as Kemal and her father set out to make 100 bagpipes in hopes of curing her mother. The final story in the collection, "Devshirmeh," is both heartbreaking and hopeful as Mihail, after seven years in the United States, separated from his mother and sister, is without work, money, or his wife. However, he still has his daughter with whom he spends weekends. Mihail, who insists that his daughter speaks Bulgarian reads her Bulgarian stories, and spins his memories into an epic tale about his great grandmother, the most beautiful woman in the world, and the Turkish Sultan who spends his life languashing for her. As he tells his daughter, the story begins in blood and so it must end in blood. As Mihail, his daughter, and their friend John Martin are caught in and survive their own epic storm, he brings his tale to a close.

Penkov's stories are compelling, moving, beautifully written with hardly a word out of place. He tells each story from a new perspective, each time revealing the hearts of his characters to the reader.

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