East of the West: Stories (available in paperback June 2012 from Picador)
A grandson tries to buy the corpse of Lenin on eBay for his
Communist grandfather. A failed wunderkind steals a golden cross
from an Orthodox church. A boy meets his cousin (the love of his
life) once every five years in the river that divides their village
into east and west. These are Miroslav Penkov’s strange,
unexpectedly moving visions of his home country, Bulgaria, and they
are the stories that make up his charming, deeply felt debut
In East of the West, Penkov writes with great empathy of centuries of tumult; his characters mourn the way things were and long for things that will never be. But even as they wrestle with the weight of history, with the debt to family, with the pangs of exile, the stories in East of the West are always light on their feet, animated by Penkov’s unmatched eye for the absurd.
^table of contents
When I was a child, I did not much like to read, because I was lazy
and preferred to play soccer outside. I did not like to be read to
either, because repetition bored me and because my parents were
really good story tellers – for years my mother told me about the
adventures of two little hippos (brother and sister) who we’d send
around the world and get into all sorts of trouble, while my father
told me stories about Bulgarian history: khans, tsars, rebels
fighting the Turks.
As a college student in the US, I wrote stories of my own, pseudo-American stories influenced by my teenage love of Stephen King, a writer I still admire greatly. It became apparent, very quickly, that the fake American stories I wrote were unconvincing garbage. Taking a class in Western History, I was amazed to find out that the professor was writing his dissertation on janissaries in the Balkans. He asked me if I could translate a Bulgarian text for him. I was mesmerized, the way I’d been as a child, by our own history. How could I have forgotten it? Why was I not writing stories like these, packed with heroism, betrayal, courage and cowardice, freedom and death?
And so I began this book. I wanted people to listen and be moved by our tales, and to show them that Bulgarians are not all car thieves and prostitutes, though there are plenty of those too. As a boy I’d listened to my father and felt calm and safe, and twenty years later I wanted to feel that same way. Writing about Bulgaria was the only way I knew that would get me back to Bulgaria – not just my family, whom I miss greatly, but also our muddy village roads, black fields, blue mountains... read the rest here.
^table of contents
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 Grandpa’s 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. I’m leaving tomorrow, and when I get there I’ll try to marry an American woman ASAP. I’ll be sure to have lots of American children. Love, your grandson.”
Buying Lenin was originally published in the Fall 2007 issue
of The Southern Review where it won the 2007 Eudora
Welty Prize in fiction.
The following year Salman Rushdie and Heidi Pitlor chose the story
to appear in the 2008 Best American Short Stories.
Here is an essay on how the story came into existence along with a story excerpt. You can hear Salman Rushdie speak briefly of my story on the Leonard Lopate Show.
East of the West ^table of contents
first met Vera in the summer of 1970, when I was six. At that time
my folks and I lived on the Bulgarian side of the river, in the
village of Bulgarsko Selo, while she and her folks made home on the
other bank, in Srbsko. 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.
"East of the West" appeared in the May/June 2011 issue of Orion Magazine. You can hear me talk about the story and the book right here:
The story was also chosen for the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012
^table of contents
I was born just twenty years after we got rid of the
Turks. 1898. So yes, this makes me seventy-one. And yes, I’m grumpy.
I’m mean. I smell like all old men do. I am a walking pain, hips,
shoulders, knees and elbows. I lie awake at night. I call my
daughter by 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? I
am in no way original or new. Although, I might be jealous of a man
who’s sixty years dead.
Read "Makedonija" in its entirety online at Five Chapters.
The Letter ^table of contents
It’s not like Grandmoms is urging me to steal from the British. But she knows I can’t help it. So when I walk under the trellis she looks up from her newspaper and says, Maria, today Missis was seen at the store with new earrings. Real pearls.
She tells me to tie the end of a loose vine string and while I tie it Grandmoms says, I’m not saying, you know. But we could split it down the middle.
I throw her this look. She says, Sixty-forty? and then she’s back to her paper. Turning one page and licking her fingers to turn the next, like the ink on her fingers is honey.
"The Letter" appeared in issue 13 of A Public Space. Read more here.
A Picture With Yuki ^table of contents
We’d learned about the in vitro program in Sofia last
year, from a friend of my mom’s - a forty-something school teacher,
who after many barren years was now, finally, the mother of twins –
Lazar and Leopold, or some similar sounding madness.
By that time, Yuki and I had been married and had tried to conceive for eighteen months. We consulted a doctor in Chicago, a Bulgarian my friends at O’Hare recommended. It turned out there was something the matter with Yuki’s fallopian tubes. It would be very hard, the doctor said, to get pregnant as nature designed it, though by all means, he said, keep trying. It would be easier to try other means, but these, of course, required hefty sums. I am a luggage loader at O’Hare. Yuki waits tables at a low-level sushi restaurant, imaginatively named Tokyo Sushi, and on the side baby-sits youngster Americans, whose parents have deemed her speaking Japanese to their children somehow beneficial. We cannot produce hefty sums.
"A Picture with Yuki" appeared in issue 148 of One Story. You can read what I have to say about the story on their website.
Cross Thieves ^table of contents
Drugarki i drugari, dear comrades, please welcome the Amazing Rado!
This is how my father introduces me to the crowd. For the past seven years, at least once a week. Nursing homes, neighborhood retiree clubs – of the retired engineer, retired welder, crane-operator. There I am, in a room that smells of lavender spirit, in front of two rows of wheelchairs, trembling chins, dangling tubes, bags of urine, doing my mnemonic tricks to weak, Parkinsonian applause. And after that my father begins his rounds among the rows, an empty 3-liter jar in his hands. The label on the jar is peeled off almost completely and on the white space Father has scribbled boldly - Amazing Rado’s Scholarship Fund. But if you look closely, you’ll see a corner of the original label still standing and then you’ll know – this jar was once full of pickled cauliflower.
The Night Horizon ^table of contents
She fit like a stone in her father’s cupped palm when he
first held her. Yellow palm, stained from stringing leaves of
tobacco, and she bloody, blind, and quiet. She did not scream when
her father took her. She did not breathe. A bloody stone was all she
was back then. So her father shook her and smacked her face, and
then she screamed, and then she breathed.
He raised her up to the ceiling as if God had poor eyesight and wouldn’t see her down where she lay. He called her name, Kemal, which was his name really, the name of his father, and then repeated it, like a proud song, to make sure that up in the Jannah the angel had heard right and had written her name correctly in the big book.
“You cannot give your daughter a man’s name,” the hodja told him.
“It’s too late now,” her father answered. “It has been written.”
Devshirmeh ^table of contents
“It is well known, even before her birth, that my
great-grandmother would be the most beautiful woman in the world. So
on the day she draws her first breath men from all over come to pay
her tribute. The line in front of the house is so long that it takes
the last man twelve years before he finally falls at her feet and
presents his gifts of honor.
Because of my great-grandmother’s supreme beauty, the laws of cause and effect in the village break down for a while. An event is no longer followed by its usual consequence, but instead leads to something completely unexpected. This is first noticed when a few of the men waiting to see the newborn get so anxious that they start throwing stones at the house. Contrary to all expectations, the windows do not break, but the leaves on the nearby trees momentarily turn red and begin falling as if autumn has come months before its time. Five houses down, a girl desperately falls in love with her uncle because two kids try to drown a bag of black kittens in the river, and an old woman is run over by a bull because on the other end of the village a housewife forgets to put potatoes in the stew..."
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.
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A Few Words of Praise
"Miroslav Penkov spins magical tales. There is great humor here, and wonderful characters you will never forget. You will love this book. I cannot praise it highly enough."
-- Ellen Gilchrist,
author of Nora Jane
and Victory Over Japan
"Miroslav Penkov is an extraordinary writer. There is a kind of magic at work in EAST OF THE WEST, a beautiful alchemy that combines wisdom and imagery, soul and story to render, finally, the pure gold these tales truly are. May many more books follow this one!"
-- Bret Lott,
author of Jewel
and Reed's Beach
"Miroslav Penkov has successfully trapped two
elusive creatures: the
absurd beauty of Eastern Europe and the emotional paradox of self-exile
from that absurdity. His sense of history, his sense of humor, and his
ability to create lasting characters make this book a dark yet hilarious
author of The Historian
and The Swan Thieves
"I suspect that Miroslav Penkov would be a wonderful writer in any language, but lucky for us, it happens to be English, and what funny, tender, tragic, and soulful stories he spins from his adopted tongue. East of the West is, simply put, one of the best collections I have read in years, ambitious and accomplished enough in scope to encompass east, west, and all stations in between."
author of Brief Encounters
with Che Guevara
"Miroslav Penkov unpacks his stories with great skill, drawing the reader so deeply into the world he has created that when the magic comes - a father wrapping his son's eyelash in a handkerchief - it knocks the wind right out of you. EAST OF THE WEST captures the moments that prove we are truly living."
author of The Good Thief
"There is something magical in Miroslav Penkov's stories. They evoke the forested mountains and peasant villages of the Balkans... But there is also something un-charming, un-picturesque, and un-romantic in Penkov's work, and this is what makes it important. His tough, true depiction of his tragic homeland's long history of wars, oppression, division, and genocide provides the real magic of this wonderful book."
-- Molly Giles,
author of Creek Walk
and Iron Shoes
"East of the West is an astonishing debut—a work
of singular vision, part
fictive history, part fairy tale, that somehow explains this mysterious country. Yet the work is hardly enigmatic: rather than use exoticism as a cloying curtain, it presents the scent of the unfamiliar to draw us to a nuanced understanding—revealing yet
universal—of what it is to be a small part in a large story."
author of The Caprices
and A Carnivore's Inquiry
More reviews, blurbs,
About the dust jacket
The jacket art is the work of
Peter Sis, an
internationally acclaimed illustrator, filmmaker, painter and
author. Mr. Sis was born in 1949 in Brno, Czechoslovakia, and grew
up in Prague. He studied painting and filmmaking at the Academy of
Applied Arts in Prague and the Royal College of Art in London. His
animated work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern
Art. He came to America in 1982, and now lives in New York’s Hudson
Valley with his family. Peter Sís is the first children’s book
artist to be named a MacArthur Fellow.
His many distinguished books include Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei, Tibet Through the Red Box, Madlenka, Rainbow Rhino, The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin, and The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain.