East of the West

By Miroslav Penkov

In a comment made during the lead-up to the Iraq war in 2003, then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld took a dig at countries such as France and Germany as representing “Old Europe.” “New Europe,” we later learned, designated the (allegedly) more pro-American, post-Communist countries of Eastern Europe: new members of NATO and the European Union.

Countries like, for example, Bulgaria.

Bulgaria entered NATO in 2004 and the EU three years later. At which point, as an old woman in one of Miroslav Penkov’s stories says, Bulgaria came to an end.

Penkov was born in Bulgaria – then still very much Old Europe – in 1982, and came to the United States as a student in 2001. His writing career has since progressed from an MFA in creative writing to a job teaching creative writing at the University of North Texas and a position as the fiction editor of the American Literary Review. East of the West is his first book, a collection of short stories dealing with the lives of Bulgarians in Europe and America.

It will come as no surprise that Penkov’s New Europe doesn’t look or sound very new. Rumsfeld was, in this as in so many other ways, full of it.

Bulgaria in this book is decidedly Old School, as full of memories of Ottoman rule as of the Communist yoke. (Not surprisingly, in Western eyes, specifically those of a loudmouthed Texan in the story “Devshirmeh,” Bulgarians are still seen as “Russians” and “commies.” Bulgaria doesn’t even share a border with Russia.)

For Penkov the past, in the form of letters and legends, rituals and superstitions, frequently impinges on the present. This leads to many of his stories taking on a primitive folk- or even fairy-tale quality with lots of pretty obvious symbolism. In the title story, for example, the main characters are a pair of star-crossed lovers (also cousins) whose villages are separated into East and West by a river that has submerged an ancient church. In another story a pair of young roughs break in to a church to steal a golden cross only to be surprised by what they take to be the mummy of a saint.

It is a mythic landscape painted in simple, solid brushstrokes: “There was a river in the village, and above the village there was the mountain. You could ask for nothing more.” The people, even the young people, are haunted by a phantom-filled collective unconscious, and feel themselves as much a part of their homeland as the rocks and hills, with ancient, mystical connections binding language, soil and blood. Post-communist governments may drop like “rotten pears,” but words are things like stones. One narrator tries to explain all this to his Americanized daughter as he tells her the story of their family:

Blood binds those in it and blood divides them. Many have told it before and many have sung about it, but I didn’t learn it from them. I was born and I knew it. It was in the earth and in the water, in the air and in the milk of my mother.

It’s hard to imagine a contemporary North American urban writer expressing him or herself in this way. Penkov’s Bulgaria is a postmodern multicultural mix, but there is also something primitive and tribal about the place. A poor, culturally divided, and frankly backward country, with many of the people we meet dreaming of Western lifestyles and trying to make it to America, it nevertheless exerts an elemental force of attraction through its land, history, and powerful family ties. Blood binds and blood divides but home is where the heart is.

Review first published in the Toronto Star September 4, 2011.

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