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Book Review: East Of The West by Miroslav Penkov

My review of East Of The West
Not only are we the only people to reverse the head signals for yes and no, but we Bulgarians also hold the dubitable honor of being really sad people. To some readers, Miroslav Penkov’s East Of The West: A Country In Stories may not seem to dispel the idea much. There is a profound difference between sad and melancholic and a large chasm between lugubrious and stoically wistful. Penkov’s book is about Bulgaria and a very Bulgarian ethos informs it, but ultimately, it is a thoroughly moving, beautifully-written collection of short stories about love, blood, ideals, and borders. Its stories are the product of exile–literal and metaphorical, yet this homelessness is also the story of a journey–at times a very Odyssian journey to a place that only exists in one’s mind and resides in our blood.
Language plays an integral role in East Of The West–like a lot of writers for whom English is a second language, Penkov’s love affair with it is palpable and he engages the readers’ senses with its richness. He is “lexicon drunk.” With great ingenuity, Penkov wryly inserts Bulgarianisms throughout the book [Sinko, for example, refers to a “young son,” and is not just a proper name] or yad is defined as “what lines the inside of every Bulgarian soul. Yad is like spite, rage, anger, but more elegant, more complicated. It’s like a pity for someone, regret for something you did or did not do, for chance you missed, for an opportunity you squandered.”
East Of The West is also an eerily accurate yet non-didactic primer on Bulgarian history–it manages to cover almost all pivotal points such as the Ottoman Empire [or Turkish yoke, as it is commonly referred to], komiti, gorilla fighters living in dugouts, the advent of communism, the Macedonia-Bulgarian separation, the fall of communism. To read it is to inhale and grasp some important milestones in the shaping of the Bulgarian spirit, if you will. At times the “centuries-old wrath of the slave,” moves mountains, literally, at other times, these ideals ring hollow and only reaffirm their own meaninglessness as in the story of “East Of The West” where a young couple dies just because they live on the opposite sides of a river separating Bulgaria from Macedonia. As the protagonist’s seemingly-communist-for-life Grandfather in “Buying Lenin,” says “What kind of a world is this where people and goats die in dugouts for nothing at all? And so I lived as though ideals really mattered.” Ideals are simultaneously metaphoric and metamorphic.
One of these ideals is the struggle for freedom/liberation and here the very Bulgarian theme of the mountain really towers. The mountain is where all the freedom fighters hide, where people live in hideouts, but more than its geographical advantage, the mountain is literally the mother that holds anyone in need in her bosom and protects those who call for her help. People move mountains and the mountain is moved by them/moves for them. In “Devshirmeh,” the girl beset by the sultan’s army begs, “Planino, please hide us in your bosom.” The song, “I got no father, I got no mother. Father to scorn me. Mother to mourn me. My father – the mountain. My mother – the shotgun,” really underscores its mythical, moving power.
Penkov also uses incredibly evocative metaphors to underscore the pull of that blood–not in a literal genetic sense but in the sense of some ancestral knowledge or visceral call that cannot be erased by distance or time. In “Buying Lenin,” he poignantly describes the intense loneliness and longing for [a] home he feels as a student here in the US; he has mastered the language but this knowledge is at times pointless and even worse…poisonous in further removing him from home: “My ears rang, my tongue swelled up. I went on for months, until one day I understood that nothing I said mattered to those around me. No one knew where I was from, or cared to know. I had nothing to say to this world…I cradled the receiver, fondled the thin umbilical cord of the phone that stretched ten thousand miles across the sea.” He desperately wants to make anyone hear, or at least feel, what he is experiencing in this exile, but ultimately, he can only reassure himself that “blood is thicker than the ocean.” And even though he had rebelled against his Grandpa’s seemingly laughable veneration of Lenin, he comes to realize that he and Lenin are alike in some small but human sense –“Like me he had spent his youth abroad, in exile. He sounded permanently hungry and cold.” In “Devshirmeh,” blood literally speaks, underscoring the pride in one’s heritage that is so integral to the Bulgarian ethos: “It is your blood you spill. My blood runs in her veins and hers in mine. Blood will make us see.”
The life in exile is a thread that runs through many of the stories and is a trenchant commentary on the immigrant limbo. One of the characters yearns to just sit with his Grandfather under the black grapes of the trellised vine. They are all looking back, nostalgic and wistful, to a place that really only lives in their minds, but looking back is dangerously heavy and weighs one down–“you either turn to a pillar of stone or lose your beloved into Hades.”
East Of The West’s heroes are not heroic in the traditional sense–in an incredibly creative way, the book lauds the “un”heroic cowards, if you will, because “cowardice” is reality and living alone takes courage. In “Makedonjia,” a husband bravely reads to his ailing wife letters she had received from her first love–“their love was foolish, childish, sugar-sweet, the kind of love that, if you are lucky to lose it, flares up like a thatched roof but burns as long as you live. I am just her husband and she is my wife.” The story is a melancholic but beautiful rumination on aging and love and love’s aging as well. “Isn’t it good to be so young that you can lose a tooth and not even notice?” it asks. The line “a man ought to be able to undress his wife from all the years until she lies before him naked in youth again” illustrates Penkov’s brilliant gift of prose and profound skill at character studies. East Of The West is not a sad book–it is existential yet thoroughly in touch with magical that lives in everything seemingly pedestrian. Ultimately, it is a truly penetrating yet drolly mirthful look into the “deep dark Slavic soul.”