Talented Young Writer Makes His Debut

“Today, one in eight Bulgarians lives abroad, and I have seen countless parents (my own included) encourage their children to leave, to seek chances away from home, and I’ve seen Bulgarians change their names, abandon their language, take on new beliefs, new ideologies and identities, forget where they came from,” writes Miroslav Penkov in a recent blog post, flagging the publication of his debut collection of stories.

The reader will be forgiven for not recognizing the name of the 28 year-old Bulgarian-American writer, or for being ignorant of the plight of Bulgarians at home or abroad. East of the West may do a lot to change that because of its rich and fascinating subject matter and its author’s unmistakably large talent.

Grace of the Internet, you can Google Penkov and within seconds access the blog in which he sums up 1500 years of the history that feeds his stories. But you don’t need to bone up on facts, because--pace the subtitle (A Country in Stories)—East of the West is about unforgettable characters in memorable situations. You are, in short, in the hands of a novice master testing his skills and the boundaries of his craft. Think of a young Alice Munro crossing paths with David Bezmozgis and Jonathan Safran Foer. In Bulgaria.

The stories run the gamut from traditional slice-of-life realism, to absurdist and nihilistic satire, to mythic and poetic meditation. All but one is recounted by a varius first person narrators. In Makedonija, this is a 71-year-old man in an old age home, consumed by jealousy of his wife’s long-ago lover, whose letters from a field of battle in 1905 the narrator stumbles upon by accident. In 21 tight pages Penkov tells the story of five generations against the backdrop of wars and revolutions that foreshadow the Balkan troubles of our own times.

In The Letter, the point of view is that of 16-year-old Maria, abandoned at birth by her mother with her twin Magda, in an orphanage. There Magda is beaten into a state of brain damage by a teacher, while Maria is adopted by a grandmother, who grooms her in the arts of subterfuge and theft. Amoral and venal though Maria is, when it comes to Magda, she proves herself capable of a fierce, if compromised integrity.

The most ambitious of the stories, Devshirmeh (“blood tribute”), blends the story of Mihail, a deadbeat Bulgarian immigrant to America, with that of a mythical ancestor whose life encompassed a complex Turkish/Slav/Moslem/Christian cultural heritage. Mihail’s saga rings true in all its often bizarre and exaggerated details of a soured immigrant dream, from the emergency surgery that lands him in $25,000 debt, to the benefactor that steals his wife, to his unfaltering—if often irresponsible—love for his little girl, Elli. The fairy tale Mihail recounts Elli symbolizes the conflict warring within the heart of anyone leaving one world for another: how to make a good life in the new country while holding on to the essence of the one abandoned.

East of the West: A Country in Stories

by Miroslav Penkov

Review published in

August 13, 2011

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