Melancholy and magic glimmer through Miroslav Penkov’s new collection of stories about Bulgaria, East of the West, in a manner that brings to mind the world of Zamyatin, Bulgakov, and Babel. That universe of onion-domed churches, black bread, devils clustered in trees, and witches’ houses on chicken legs finds echoes in Penkov’s Bulgaria, with its mad bagpipe makers who steal and slaughter goats at night, magical mountains capable of disguising a woman’s beauty to protect her, ferocious Turks, communists who hang kulaks from walnut trees, and explanations such as “the village children made fun of Kemal because her head was shiny like a lizard, because she smelled like a goat and because her father was crazy.” It all seems like classic Eastern European literature, but there’s a difference: These stories are written in English and have an understated American perspective. Still, Penkov’s characters exude melancholy, and the landscape does, too. In the title story, two lovers meet by swimming to the cross on the roof of a drowned church, submerged in the middle of a river. “I thought how much I wanted to be like the river, which had no memory,” the narrator recalls, “and how little like the earth, which could never forget.”
What the earth never forgets is all the blood that has soaked into it. “Makedonija” opens: “I was born just twenty years after we got rid of the Turks. 1898,” and the narrative extends to include wars, battles over borders, the advent of communism, and its fall. This sad and haunting story reveals a family’s division between those who suffer shame and guilt over cowardice in the face of death and the communist partisans slaughtered in their struggle against tsarism. Other stories are humorous, but with an edge. In “Buying Lenin,” a young Bulgarian, whose relatives’ fervent communism is unaffected by the Soviet Union’s fall, is met at an American airport by Christian proselytizers with Bibles that, they tell him, contain the Lord’s word. “‘Oh, Lenin’s collected works,’ I said. ‘Which volume?’” Later, on eBay, the young man purchases Lenin’s embalmed and refrigerated corpse, as a gift for his die-hard communist grandfather; this is fitting, as that grandfather lives in a hamlet whose residents have “decided to salvage every communist artifact remaining in Bulgaria.” Another story, “Cross Thieves,” also takes place after 1989 and narrates the indignities to which a gifted young man is subjected by his grasping father, and how he repays a crowd in Sofia with his own rather filthy indignity.
But despite this humor, the collection concludes with “Devshirmeh” (translation: “blood tribute”), which interweaves the trials of a Bulgarian in Texas with the tale of his great-grandmother’s legendary beauty. Her looks ensnared a sultan’s most loyal and bloodthirsty janissary, causing clouds to drop like huge rocks from the sky. Blood, melancholy, magic, and memory—Penkov glides on these Eastern-European currents in a spare, graceful structure of American prose.