“Makedonija”, the opening story of Miroslav Penkov’s East of the West, is narrated by an old man living in a nursing home with his wife who has recently suffered a stroke.
“Last night I pissed my bed and who knows what joy tonight will bring?” he grumbles. “I am in no way original or new.” The action of this story has already occurred, left for the narrator to discover in a bundle of old letters sent to his wife by her first lover, a war hero who died fighting the Turks.
Penkov’s decision to open a collection with such a backward-looking and ill-tempered narrative might seem perverse – but East of the West, a collection set in and around the author’s homeland of Bulgaria, is an uncompromising work that takes as its theme the difficulty of starting afresh.
The Bulgarian protagonists of Penkov’s tales waver between their desires for western freedom and home in the east: two narrators have won their place in the New World via the Green Card Lottery, but seem ambivalent about their good fortune.
The narrator of “Cross Thieves” has an almost supernatural talent for memorising (shades here of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children) but no prospects. In the autobiographical “Buying Lenin”, a boy disappoints his grandfather by leaving Bulgaria to study at an American university, before realising how much he shares with his elder relative (and with Lenin, whose body he purchases on eBay).
Penkov has a fine ear for cross-bred languages, mixing cliché and misunderstanding in comical ways (“The second stroke”, writes the narrator of “Makedonija”, “left half of Nora paralysed, and all of her mute”).
The irascible, energetic spirit of East of the West is perhaps best encapsulated by the narrator of “Devshirmeh”, a father who has lost his wife and job and who, on watching his wealthy neighbours sail their luxury yachts, experiences yad – a Bulgarian word whose meaning is, he says, “like spite, rage, anger, but more elegant, more complicated”.
Penkov’s reliance on symbols, parallel lives, and stories within stories occasionally makes his busy narratives feel overworked, as if straining for a thesis. The more successful moments in this promising debut occur when the confusion of life is allowed to inflict its damage – like the tornado that sweeps the American landscape in “Devshirmeh”, at first frightening, then quietly sublime.
East of the West: A Country in Stories, by Miroslav Penkov, Sceptre, RRP £17.99, 240 pages