Stories can reveal much about a people, culture or nation. They tend to reflect not only tradition but the variety and evolution of beliefs and societ...moreStories can reveal much about a people, culture or nation. They tend to reflect not only tradition but the variety and evolution of beliefs and societal viewpoints. Although Miroslav Penkov now lives and teaches in the United States, his debut collection of short stories provides insight into his native Bulgaria a reader would never pick up in a travelogue or similar work.
The title itself, East of the West: A Country in Stories, could be a definitive précis of the book. Penkov's stories tell of life in and the people of Bulgaria in a guileless, congenial fashion. They reflect the mix that is part of Bulgaria, a country that may long for the West but retains pride in its Eastern roots. At least here, the history of Ottoman rule, the longstanding issues of the Balkan states, and the installation and fall of Communism remain relevant.
What role does history play in Bulgarian society? The first story, "Makedonija," opens with: "I was born just 20 years after we got rid of the Turks." It proceeds to recount the man's discovery of love letters his wife received in 1905 from a soldier fighting to free Macedonia from Turkish rule. The title story is set in two hamlets on the opposite banks of a river. They used to be one one village but following the Balkan Wars and World War I, the hamlet on the west side of the river is in Serbia and the one on the east is in Bulgaria. Set in part in the 1970s, the story tells of a romance between a boy and a girl on opposite sides of the river. "The Night Generation," meanwhile, involves a family proud of its Turkish ethnicity but caught up in the Communist government's late 1984 directive forcing citizens of Turkish heritage to adopt Bulgarian names.
The divergent generational views of the Communist era are more fully seen in "Buying Lenin," which seems to have at least a touch of autobiography to it. It tells of a Bulgarian who comes to America in 1999 to attend the University of Arkansas, Penkov's alma mater, and his exchanges with his grandfather, who fought for the Communists in 1944 and rose in the national party. With a touch of love, the grandfather and grandson call each other names like "you rotten capitalist pig" and "you communist dupe." When the grandfather's village reverts to communist times, the grandson goes on eBay to but him Lenin's corpse.
East of the West is marked with a touch of humor that can at times seem to make the stories more identifiable. Thus, when the grandson arrives in Arkansas, the people who pick him up at the airport hand him a book, telling him "These are the words of our Savior. The world of our Lord." The grandson replies, "Oh, Lenin's collected works. Which volume?"
Likewise, the opening paragraph of "Makedonija" almost completely sets the curmudgeonly character of the narrator for us. After telling us his birth after defeating the Turks makes him 71, he says,
And yes, I'm grump. I'm mean. I smell like old men do. I am a walking pain, hips, shoulders, knees and elbows. I lie awake at night. I call my daughter my grandson's name and I remember the day I met my wife much better than yesterday, or today. August 2, I think. 1969. Last night I pissed my bed and who knows what joy tonight will bring?
Yet East of the West isn't exclusively about Bulgaria. Parts of it also relate to the American experience. In "Buying Lenin," we get a sense of both acclimation to America but at the same time the sense of homesickness the narrator is surprised to encounter. And "Devshirmeh" tells of the life of a Bulgarian man who wins a green card in the lottery, comes to the U.S. with his wife and infant daughter but now lives the life of a divorced father who barely makes ends meet. Still, he seeks to instill in his daughter a sense of their heritage and background and how blood -- family -- can lead a person to set aside the worst in themselves.
Ultimately, the book is about the Bulgarian experience, whether there or as a Bulgarian living in America. While it would be unfair to call this Eastern European or Bulgarian literature, it is a fine introduction to some inventive, enjoyable writing and Bulgaria itself.
Book publicity frequently is an exercise in the art (or artifice) of puffery. So, when a book is described as a "genre-busting" work, I tend to approa...moreBook publicity frequently is an exercise in the art (or artifice) of puffery. So, when a book is described as a "genre-busting" work, I tend to approach it with a bit of caution. Generally, though that term is a fair description of The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, Patrick Somerville's collection of short stories. Some of the stories could be described as science fiction while others defy categorization. Granted, genre-spanning could also be used to describe the stories. Despite their variety and at times unusual subjects, common elements and themes connect most of the stories.
For example, the opening tale, which gives the collection its name, introduces us to the School of Surreal Thought and Design. SSTD makes an appearance in other stories that do not involve the characters of the first. Similarly, the random stabbing of a young man on the street plays a role in at least three of the stories. Characters, meanwhile, make an appearance in seemingly unrelated stories, serving to provide a common thread. More important, virtually all of the stories are at heart about their characters, characters often broken in one way or another. Those who are damaged often are, as one says, "stuck in time" or, in the words of another, represent "the human mind trapped by itself in a vacuum but there's a very small window somehow within this empty and airless prison."
Thus, "People Like Me" is about a mercenary trying to return to normal family life but who is being recruited for another job (one which will play a crucial role in a later story). How far he's been removed from normal life is reflected by the fact that after returning home from an anger management class he sleeps in a closet holding an assault rifle. "Pangea," meanwhile, consists of the supposedly therapeutic journal ponderings of a man in a mental health facility. For Tom Sanderson, the central character in the novella "The Machine of Understanding Other People," self-hatred and a descent into alcoholism aren't as recent as his second divorce and losing his job as a corporate attorney.
On the surface, the book is somewhat reminiscent of Steven Millhauser's Dangerous Laughter: Thirteen Stories. Somerville's characters, however, provide an edge that gives his work its own character keeps the stories from becoming perhaps too precocious.
Although the book contains 30 stories (including a closing novella), a couple are vignettes of moments or events in two pages or less. That includes "Mother," on a per word basis perhaps the book's strongest piece. In it, a mother recalls the day her son was killed in that random stabbing. Not quite a stream of consciousness, the story traces her thought process from shock and dread to anguish and pain. (Later brief stories give the perspective of the son, a police officer who walks past the assailant shortly before the stabbing and the killer himself.) Immediately following "Mother" and nearly as strong is "The Wildlife Biologist," in which a high school girl learns through her parents' separation and her biology teacher of the failed dreams and compromises that can accumulate over the course of a life. In fact, Somerville's frequent reliance on generally strong female narrators helps give the collection a breadth of perspective one might not expect a male author to carry off quite so well (or well from the perspective of a male reader).
As with any collection, not everything in The Universe in Miniature in Miniature will not resonate with every reader. In fact, this is the type of work where a group of readers can quite legitimately differ on which are their favorites and which stories are stronger than others. The closing novella, though, will likely provoke every reader into considering which stories tie together and in what fashion. Some may also wonder about the significance to be attached to any perceived connection between or among any two or more stories. Combining a light touch of science fiction with greater emphasis on the characters, "The Machine of Understanding Other People" also helps epitomize Somerville's "genre-busting." Yet it also reminds us that the work as a whole may be its own machine of understanding other people, one that tends to give insight into not only the empty prison but, more important, the window.