A good subtitle can provide a guiding principle, a skeleton of purpose to support the actual writing in a book. Miroslav Penkov’s accomplished debut collection East Of The West: A Country In Stories sets out to encapsulate his native Bulgaria by preserving memories from its past and the spread-out immigrants of the present. It collects the oral tradition in a brief volume that doesn’t sacrifice cultural accuracy, but still achieves compelling narrative.
In representing the history of Bulgaria, the eight stories cover the end of Ottoman rule in the late 19th century, moving through the Communist state of the mid-20th century to the contemporary period where many young Bulgarians enter green-card lotteries to immigrate elsewhere. There are tiny bright spots in each step in Bulgaria’s story, centered on small moments of families being happy together. Each one is a pause in the surge forward in the name of progress and the betterment of society, which never seems to bring peace or satisfaction to anyone.
“Buying Lenin” may be the only uplifting story in the collection—Salman Rushdie selected it for 2008’s The Best American Short Stories collection—with a playful tragicomic streak between a Bulgarian student in America and his Communist grandfather back home that still builds to a depressing end. The others are meticulously heartbreaking, burrowing inside different facets of personal sadness in each narrator. No one finds fulfillment, not the Bulgarian immigrants in the United States, or the families at home during the various eras of the last century of Bulgarian history. The standout story, “A Picture With Yuki,” depicts a baggage handler at O’Hare and his Japanese wife traveling to his Bulgarian hometown to seek fertility treatment, with Penkov negotiating many levels of foreigners: the narrator seeing his home through the eyes of a returning immigrant, his wife’s completely different culture, and the Gypsies who suffer a sudden tragedy.
Though Penkov leans heavily on the crutch of death and divorce to create drama or provide a conclusion, at its best, East Of The West paints an eastern-European portrait similar to what Junot Diaz’s debut collection, Drown, did for the Dominican Republic. Both authors even translated their collections into their own languages themselves. Penkov’s imagination creates a country with loose historical borders, a people stranded across the world, trying to preserve some kind of cohesive personal history in contrast to the back-and-forth, ever-changing story of their homeland.