Miroslav Penkov was born in Gabrovo, Bulgaria in 1982, seven years before the fall of the Communist regime, but he moved to the United States when he was eighteen and now lives in Texas.
This collection, which he wrote in English, comes in at just over two hundred pages and is composed of eight tales. After reading the dust-jacket I was expecting rather fantastical stories like those in Deyan Enev’s Circus Bulgaria but soon discovered that most of these tales are steeped in the harsh reality of Bulgaria’s turbulent history over the last hundred years or so. In fact while being very gripping and containing a number of strong characters, the stories collectively could serve as a Bulgarian history book, as they range from fighting the occupying Turkish forces, through the Communist era to the period after its collapse. The book’s subtitle, ‘A Country in Stories’, is very appropriate. Though there are certain mentions of folk-tales and folk-belief here and there, more recent myths – the American Dream and the Leninist Utopia – are also dealt with, in ‘Buying Lenin’.
Penkov’s own journey from Bulgaria to the U.S.A. is no doubt drawn upon in ‘A Picture with Yuki’ and ‘Devshirmeh‘, which are partly set in the latter country. Many Bulgarians have emigrated in the last twenty-five years and cutting yourself off from the past in order to move on with your life is a theme in two stories, ‘Devshirmeh‘ and ‘East of the West’.
My favourite story was the title story, which is set in north-west Bulgaria in the late 20th Century, where a community is separated by a wide river, presumably the Danube, that now acts as the border with Serbia. It’s an example of how the area was cut and pasted following a series of wars in which Bulgaria always ended up on the losing side and was forced to have its borders redrawn. A character from eastern Bulgaria turns up in this story and can’t understand the local accent, accusing the protagonist, whose name is Nose, of being Serbian. When Nose finally ends up in Belgrade, a Serbian taxi driver berates him for being Bulgarian.
Bulgaria‘s ethnic diversity is dealt with in ‘A Picture with Yuki’, where Gypsy culture is to the fore. The large ethnic Turk minority in Bulgaria were treated terribly in the late 1980’s when they were forced to change their names to good solid Bulgarian ones and if they didn’t comply, were pressurized into leaving the country. This shameful period of ethnic cleansing is a theme in ‘The Night Horizon’. In ‘The Letter’ the recently-arrived idle-rich British are another aspect of the ethnic mix.
Death is a common theme here and there’s a death in five of the eight tales but it’s usually dealt with in a very moving way. One story with a death is ‘The Cross Thieves’ and though I enjoyed its very dark humour, I didn’t like it as much as the others because it seemed to me to veer off into something of a fantastical horror vein rather than keeping its feet firmly planted. I much preferred ‘The Letter’, which also contained a lot of grim humour but touched me more because of its awful reality.
I really enjoyed this collection and I can recommend it to anyone who enjoys an engaging short story and also to those who would like to find out more about Bulgaria and its history. I look forward to reading more of Penkov’s work.
Miroslav Penkov’s East of the West is available from Hodder and Stoughton, at £8.99