PEN/O.Henry 2012: by Miroslav Penkov, “East of the West” from Orion, May/June 2011

It takes me thirty years, and the loss of those I love, to finally arrive in Beograd. Now I’m pacing outside my cousin’s apartment, flowers in one hand and a bar of chocolate in the other, rehearsing the simple questions I want to ask her. A moment ago, a Serbian cabdriver spat on me and I take time to wipe the spot on my shirt. I count to eleven.
Vera, I repeat once more in my head, will you marry me?

Know any Bulgarians? I feel as if I know several, having read this story.

It’s a story as complicated as the region in which it’s set. I plead guilty to being a little hazy in my Balkan history, but look up “balkanize” and you’ll get the general idea. It’s a story that’s part folk tale, part historical romance, part sociological treatise – and it ends with Nose coming to terms with Bobby McGee: freedom truly is just another word for nothing left to lose.

But it starts with Nose on the porch waiting for Vera to open the door. He’s called Nose – we never find out his real name – because thirty years earlier, Vera punched him in the nose and broke it, so it’s his most distinctive feature.

Then we go back to find out how he came to be there on the doorstep, and delve into the junction of personal and geopolitical history:

A long time ago these two villages had been one – that of Staro Selo – but after the great wars Bulgaria had lost land and that land had been given to the Serbs. The river, splitting the village in two hamlets, had served as a boundary – what lay east of the river stayed in Bulgaria and what lay west belonged to Serbia.

As you can tell, the idea of “east” and “west” are crucial to this story. But a little more history makes it much clearer:

Back in the day, before the Balkan Wars, a rich man lived east of the river. He had no offspring and no wife, so when he lay down dying he called his servant with a final wish – to build, with his money, a village church. The church was built, west of the river, and the peasants hired from afar a young zograf, a master of icons. The master painted for two years and there he met a girl and fell in love with her and married her and they too lived west of the river, near the church.
Then came the Balkan Wars and after that the First World War. All these wars Bulgaria lost, and much Bulgarian land was given to the Serbs. Three officials arrived in the village: one was a Russian, one was French, one was British. East of the river, they said, stays in Bulgaria. Soldiers guarded the banks and planned to take the bridge down, and when the young master, who had gone away to work on another church, came back, the soldiers refused to let him cross the border and return to his wife.
In his desperation the gathered people and convinced them to divert the river, to push it west until it went around the village. Because according to the orders, what lay east of the river stayed in Bulgaria.
How they carried all those stones, all those logs, how they piled them up, I cannot imagine. Why the soldiers did not stop them, I don’t know. The river moved west and it looked like she would serpent around the village. But then she twisted, wiggled, and tasted with her tongue a route of lesser resistance – through the lower hamlet she swept, devouring people and houses. Even the church, in which the master had left two years of his life, was lost in her belly.

Nose and Vera grew up on opposite sides of the river, meeting in reunions and once in a while illicitly by swimming the river. The church’s cross still sticks up through the water halfway across at one point. The river is part of the culture of the two towns; it’s also a character in the story.

Uncle Radko had taken his sheep by the cliffs, where the river narrowed, and seeing Grandpa herding his animals on the opposite bluff, shouted, I bet your Bulgars will lose in London, and Grandpa shouted back, You wanna put some money on it? And that’s how the bet was made, thirty years ago.

But those to the East are still Bulgarians, while those on the West are now considered Serbs, come to consider themselves Serbs. This idea of identity, how it strains when some men from somewhere else meet in a room to draw lines on maps, is a central theme, and this is a story those men from somewhere else should read when they meet in those rooms to draw those maps. Nose envies her access to Adidas shoes and Levi’s jeans and Western music, but when he presses her to declare if she is Bulgarian or Serb, she doesn’t answer.

I knew she was sad. And I liked it. She had nice shoes, and jeans, and could listen to bands from the West, but I owned something that had been taken away from her forever.

The story twists and turns like a river. Communism falls; Vera moves away, marries, has a son (whose name she expects him to recognize; it’s unclear if it’s his name), then loses her husband in another war. Nose’s sister is shot by border guards on the night before her marriage to a boy from across the river; his mother dies of grief; he begins to drink. Eventually he is alone, in a town he doesn’t recognize, so he goes to Vera to ask for her hand. The end, I’ll leave unrevealed.

Penkov is a Bulgarian who came to Arkansas in 2001 on scholarship and now lives and teaches in North Texas. He’s much younger than the story makes the author seem. He’s done a 10-minute podcast interview with Orion, the journal that originally published this story, which is very much worth listening to. He read an article about a town in Bulgaria that was split apart after the Balkan Wars, and they did hold reunions every five years; he thought that would make an interesting story. At the same time, he was here in the States, separated from his family by a huge body of water, so he wanted to incorporate a river, with wide and narrow parts, fast and slow. I think he did a terrific job.

I first read Penkov in One Story, which published “A Picture With Yuki” last year. Both stories appear in his debut collection, titled East of the West. You may see the other stories in these pages at some point; I think I want to know more Bulgarians.

Miroslav Penkov – “A Picture With Yuki” from One Story #148, 4/21/2011

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..