miroslav.penkov

 

Buying Lenin: Story Excerpt

 

You can hear Salman Rushdie speak briefly of my story on the Leonard Lopate Show.

 

You can also read my brief essay on how I wrote "Buying Lenin" published at the end of the Best American anthology.

 

    When Grandpa learned I was leaving for America to study, he wrote me a good-bye note. "You rotten capitalist pig," the note read, "have a safe flight. Love, Grandpa." It was written on a creased red ballot from the 1991 elections, which was a cornerstone in Grandpaís communist ballot collection, and it bore the signatures of everybody in the village of Leningrad. I was touched to receive such an honor, so I sat down, took out a one dollar bill, and wrote Grandpa the following reply: "You communist dupe, thanks for the letter. Iím leaving tomorrow, and when I get there Iíll try to marry an American woman ASAP. Iíll be sure to have lots of American children. Love, your grandson."


                                                                                **
        There was no good reason for me to be in America. Back home I wasnít starving, at least not in the corporeal sense. No war had driven me away or stranded me on foreign shores. I left because I could, because I carried in my blood the rabies of the West. In high school, while most of my peers were busy drinking, smoking, having sex, playing dice, lying to their parents, hitchhiking to the sea, counterfeiting money, or making bombs for soccer games, I studied English. I memorized words and grammar rules and practiced tongue twisters, specifically designed for Eastern Europeans. Remember the money, I repeated over and over again down the street, under the shower, even in my sleep. Remember the money, remember the money, remember the money. Phrases like this, Iíd heard, helped you break your tongue.
        My parents must have been proud to have such a studious son. But no matter how good my grades, Grandpa never brought himself to share their sentiments. He despised the West, its moral degradation and lack of values. As a child, I could read only those books he deemed appropriate. Party Secret was appropriate. Treasure Island was not. The English language, Grandpa insisted, was a rabid dog and sometimes a single bite was all it took for its poison to reach your brain and turn it to crabapple mash.
        "Do you know, sinko," Grandpa asked me once, "what it is like to have crabapple mash for brains?" I shook my head, mortified. "Read English books, my son, and find out for yourself."
        The first few years after my grandmotherís death, Grandpa stayed in his native village, close to her grave. But after a minor stroke, my father convinced him to come back to Sofia. He arrived at our threshold with two bags Ė one full of socks, pants and drawers, the other of dusty books. "An educational gift," he said, hung the bag over my shoulder and tousled my hair, like I was still a child.
        Every week, for a few months, he fed me a different book. Partisans, plots against the tsarist regime. "Grandpa, please," Iíd say. "I have to study."
        "What you have to do is acquire a taste." Heíd leave me to read and barge into my room a minute later with some weak excuse. Had I called him? Did I need help with a difficult passage?
        "Grandpa, these are childrenís books."
        "First childrenís books, then Leninís." Heíd sit at the foot of my bed, and motion me to keep on reading.
        If I came home from school frightened because a stray dog had chased me down the street, Grandpa would only sigh. Could I imagine Kalitko the shepherd scared of a little dog? If I complained of bullies Grandpa would shake his head. "Imagine Mitko Palauzov whining."
        "Mitko Palauzov was killed in a dugout."
        "A brave and daring boy indeed," Grandpa would say and pinch his nose to stop the inevitable tears.
        And so one day I packed up the books and left them in his room with a note. Recycle for toilet paper. Next time he saw me, I was reading The Call of the Wild.
         From then on Grandpa listened to the radio a lot, read the communist newspaper Duma and the collected volumes of his beloved Lenin. He smoked unfiltered cigarettes on the balcony and recited passages from volume twelve to the sparrows along the TV antenna. My parents were concerned. I was truly amused.
        "Did you hear, Grandpa," I asked him once, "about the giraffe who could fly?"
        "Giraffes canít fly," he said. I told him Iíd just read so in Duma, on the front page at that, and he rubbed his chin. He pulled on his mustache. "Perhaps a meter or two?" he said.
        "Did you hear, Grandpa," I kept on going, "that last night in Moscow Yeltsin fed vodka to Leninís corpse? They killed the bottle together and, hand in hand, zigzagged along the square."
        There was something exhilarating about teasing Grandpa. On one hand I was ashamed, but on the otheró Sometimes, of course, I went too far and so he tried to smack me with his cane. "Why arenít you five again?" heíd say. "Iíd make your ears like a donkeyís."
It was not the teasing, but rather the sight of me hunched over an abridged edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, that finally drove Grandpa back to his native village. When my father asked for an explanation, he could not let himself admit the real reason. "Iím tired of looking at walls," he said instead. "Iím tired of watching the sparrows shit. I need my Balkan slopes, my river. I need to tidy your motherís grave." We said nothing on parting. He shook my hand.
        Without Grandpa to distract me, I focused on my studies. It had become popular at that time for kids to take the SAT and try their luck abroad. Early in the spring of 1999 I got admitted to the University of Arkansas and my scores were good enough to earn me a full scholarship, room and board, even a plane ticket.
        My parents drove me to Grandpaís village house so I could share the news with him in person. They did not believe that phones could handle important news.
        "America," Grandpa said when I told him. I could see the word dislodge itself from his acid stomach, stick in his throat and be expelled at last onto the courtyard tiles. He watched me and pulled on his mustache.
        "My grandson, a capitalist," he said. "After all Iíve been through."

                                                                        **
        What Grandpa had been through was basically this:
        The year was 1944. Grandpa was in his mid-twenties. His face was tough but fair. His nose was sharp. His dark eyes glowed with the spark of something new, great, and profoundly world-changing. He was poor. "I," he often told me, "would eat bread with crabapples for breakfast. Bread with crabapples for lunch. And crabapples for dinner, because by dinnertime, the bread would be gone."
        Thatís why when the Communists came to his village to steal food, Grandpa joined them. They had all run to the woods where they dug out underground bunkers, and lived in them for weeks on endóday and night, down there in the dugouts. Outside, the fascists sniffed for them, trying to hunt them down with their Alsatians, with their guns and bombs and missiles. "If you think a grave is too narrow," Grandpa told me on one occasion, "make yourself a dugout. No, no, make yourself a dugout and get fifteen people to join you in it for a week. And get a couple pregnant women, too. And a hungry goat. Then go around telling everybody a grave is the narrowest thing on earth."
        "Old man, I never said a grave was the narrowest thing."
        "But you were thinking it."
        So finally, Grandpa got too hungry to stay in the dugout and decided to strap on a shotgun and go down to the village for food. When he arrived, he found everything changed. A red flag was flapping from the church tower. The church had been shut down and turned into a meeting hall. There had been an uprising, the peasants told him, a revolution which overthrew the old regime. While Grandpa was hiding in the dugout, Communism sprouted fragrant blooms. All people now walked free, and their dark eyes glowed with the spark of something new, great, and profoundly world-changing. Grandpa fell to his knees and wept and kissed the soil of the motherland. Immediately, he was assimilated by the Party. Immediately, as a heroic partisan whoíd suffered in a dugout, he was given a high position in the Fatherland Fund. Immediately, he climbed further up the ladder and moved to the city, where he became something-something of the something-something department. He got an apartment, married Grandma; a year later my father was born.
       


 

Table of Contents

There are eight stories in East of the West. Here you can find either the opening paragraph of each or an excerpt that I thought captures the story's voice.

Introduction

Makedonija
East of the West
Buying Lenin
The Letter
A Picture With Yuki
Cross Thieves
The Night Horizon
Devshirmeh

                                            

First Bulgarian Empire*  Brief Timeline

  • 681 Khan Asparuh establishes the First Bulgarian Empire.
  • 811 Khan Krum slays Emperor Nicephorus I in battle and, according to the legend, turns his skull into a drinking cup.
  • 864 Boris I converts Bulgaria to Christianity.
  • 886 Boris I offers refuge to the disciples of the saint brothers Cyril and Methodius. Two of these disciples - Clement of Ohrid and Naum of Preslav, both of noble Bulgarian origin, perfect the Glagolic alphabet originally created by Cyril and Methodius. They name the new alphabet Cyrillic, in honor of their teacher. Bulgaria adopts this new alphabet as official.
  • 913 Simeon I The Great assumes the title Tsar, thus becoming the first tsar in history (the first Russian tsar won't be born for a few more centuries).
  • 20 August 917 Tsar Simeon I defeats the Byzantine emperor in the battle of Acheloos, one of the largest in medieval European history. Bulgaria reaches its largest territory, spreading over land between the Aegean, the Adriatic and the Black Sea.
  • 927- 968 The Bogomil heresy spreads through Bulgaria during the rule of Tsar Peter I. Centuries later the Bogomil heretics reach Italy and France, where people dub them Bougres (Bulgres). The word passes into English as bugger.
  • July 29, 1014 Tsar Samuil loses the Battle of Kleidion (Klyuch). The Byzantine Emperor Basil II divides the 14,000 Bulgarian soldiers into groups of 100, blinds 99 in each group and leaves the 100th with one eye so he could lead the others home. With this Basil II gains the nickname Boulgaroktonos (the Bulgar-slayer). In 1205, as a counter-derivative, Tsar Kaloyan adopts the sobriquet Rōmaioktonos (Romanslayer).
  • 1018 the Bulgarian Empire is conquered by the Byzantine. It stays under Byzantine rule, as Theme of Bulgaria, with Skopje as its capital, for 150 years until
    the rebellion of the brothers Asen and Peter in 1185.
  • 1185 Asen and Peter reestablish Bulgaria. Second Bulgarian Empire begins.
     
  • * Empire is used here as a translation of the Bulgarian "Tsarstvo," which is sometimes mistranslated as "kingdom." The title Tsar is equivalent to Emperor, not King.
  •                                             

    Miro Cover illustration: Peter Sis
    Site:
    Miroslav Penkov