Some things, I told her, were bound to work. We deserved a break, I told her, because we were good people, and good things happened to good people, sooner or later.
The story opens: “Yuki and I arrived in Bulgaria three weeks before our hospital appointment….” We don’t find out for a couple of pages what the hospital appointment is for, so there’s this tension: why would they go to Bulgaria for medical treatment? I was thinking suicide tourism, though that’s supposed to happen in Switzerland, I think. That isn’t the case, but it did create a lot of tension for a little bit there. Part of the tension was, just when am I going to find out why they’re going to a Bulgarian hospital? Turns out they’re going for cut-rate in vitro fertilization (I felt a big letdown), which becomes ironic since, as Yuki has already pointed out, nothing in Bulgaria works right.
The One Story interview with Miroslav Penkov is one of the most helpful I’ve ever read. In it, he admits the first half of the story might be seen as slow by some readers, but he wanted to set a mood and establish a background. Such honesty is so wonderful: I want to hug him! I did find the first half of the story quite slow. I’d assumed I’d become too flash-oriented and couldn’t tolerate exposition. I’ve also been told several times that in my longer stories I include too much background and have become accustomed to stripping things down (which may be why I’m so unhappy with my work). The story starts a few days before the main event, but then goes into a good deal of background about this Bulgarian-Japanese couple from America going to Bulgaria before coming back to “almost-time” and adding some additional material about those few days. I suppose it’s more or less necessary material, explaining why the couple is in Bulgaria, what the family relationships are, the stresses they’re under, why they’re at Grandfather’s house, and how the central event, and its repercussions, happen.
What it doesn’t really do is explain their reaction at the crucial time. Their actions seem a little irresponsible, but not irredeemably so, though the consequences of course make us examine that irresponsibility in more detail. It’s like Morey Safer sitting them down on 60 Minutes to demand: why didn’t you do what you knew you should do? And hearing their lame reason: Because he didn’t wobble (I’m being circumspect to avoid spoiling the story). And later, when the shit hits the fan, should they have said something? Would I have said something? I don’t think so. I wish I could say, “Of course I would,” but that would be a lie. And what of their mission in Bulgaria, if it is accomplished: will that become a concrete, lifelong remembrance of their catastrophic mistake? Will they even want to pursue the objective, in light of what has happened? This is where I have a problem, since Yuki’s actions in the very last paragraph indicate they will, and that seems very foolish, a grimly ironic twist that is doomed to generate more catastrophe in the future, going back to how things in Bulgaria don’t work.
In his interview, the author also says Yuki is Japanese not because the Bulgarians and Japanese cultures are so different (which, he admits, they are) but because his wife is Japanese; and that his parents love his wife so he wanted to make his story in-laws hostile towards Yuki (they’re probably very happy to read that). He also says he made the boy a Gypsy because they are the Bulgarians most likely to not have a camera. Really, I love this guy! No making up heavy-duty symbolism, just telling the truth. I also love that he got the inspiration from reading about post-mortem photographs, which I heard of on, oh dear, believe it or not Bravo had an art competitive reality series and one of the artists did what he called a “death portrait” and I looked it up and discovered the same thing Penkov did, that when portraiture or photography was expensive, it wasn’t until someone died that a picture was rendered of them. Because, after all, why would you need a picture before then? It turns out my favorite part of the story, the anecdote about great-grandfather and the Communists and KULAK on the gate, was part of Penkov’s actual family history. Maybe that’s why it reached out to me more than anything else.
Because something about the central event and the consequences didn’t ring true to me. It was perfectly logical, I admit. Things could happen just that way. But it felt fictional to me. Some stories I read, I think, wow, this must be based on a true story. Or, oh, those poor people, I wonder if they’re ok. Not this one. It was just a story for me. I’m not sure why that was: maybe the narrator’s distance, coupled with Yuki’s distress which felt oddly posed, particularly given her actions in the final paragraph. I never lost the sense of reading fiction. Which is not a terrible thing. It was, after all, a fictional story. I wish I could point to a sentence or an action that left me feeling this way, but I can’t.
I wonder, too, if the crucial elements of this story would have been different had the couple been two blue-eyed WASPS who grew up in Ohio and Sacramento. There’s a lot of interesting stuff with the background: both of them left families behind when they came to the US; his parents don’t like her for a variety of reasons; he has a lot of traumatic family history from Bulgaria. But does that have anything to do with what happens? I don’t think so. What if it’d taken place in, say, Appalachia, or South Central LA, or some blue-collar suburb of Chicago? The language wouldn’t have been an issue (not as much, anyway, though it might have been), but I really think setting the story in Bulgaria, and the family history, didn’t really add much to the decisions they made.
If nothing else, this story will give me chills whenever I hear that good things happen to good people. Maybe that’s the point of the story right there.
This story, along with “Buying Lenin” from BASS 2008, appears in Penkov’s forthcoming collection, East of the West..