East of the West Hardcover – 4 Aug 2011
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WINNER OF THE BBC SHORT STORY AWARD 2012. (.)
Bulgaria past and present, its magical fables, absurdist realities and political exigencies, are presented through the eyes of homesick emigr?s and those who have remained. Penkov's stories combine toughness, vulnerability and bravado...he applies humour and compassion in equal measure: this is a sparkling collection. (Guardian)
Humour, poignancy, tenderness and a deep sense of European history suffuse these lovely stories by a young Bulgarian writer of whom more will surely be heard. (Sunday Telegraph)
His splendid prose can be fleet, leisurely, colloquial, or formal... These stories are not the promising work of a first-time author. They are already a promise fulfilled--wise, bright, and deep with sympathy. (Alec Solomita, The New Republic)
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 of these tales. Miroslav Penkov is an extraordinary writer. May many books follow this one. (Bret Lott, author of Jewel and A Song I Knew by Heart)
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. (Hannah Tinti, author of The Good Thief)
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 pleasure. (Elizabeth Kostova, author of The Historian)
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. (Ben Fountain, author of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara)
Miroslav Penkov spins magical tales. There is wonderful humor here, and characters you will never forget. You will love this book. I cannot recommend it highly enough. (Ellen Gilchrist, National Book Award-winning author of A Dangerous Age and I Cannot Get You Close Enough)
Every once in a while, but no more often than that, a first book by a young writer comes along to restore a reader's faith in things. I mean big, serious things which matter, ones like memory, imagination, words, creativity and moral judgement...Rarely has such an intriguingly disparate cast been so deftly and dryly assembled...Penkov's stories are ironic without being trite, melancholic, but with a whiff of whimsy, revealing that they remain distinctly eccentric. He is a considerable, quirky, new talent. (Canberra Times)
The debut of a new international star with an outstanding collection of short stories, spiked with homesickness and fizzing with the absurd.See all Product description
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As for East of the West, this book contains amazing characters, places and stories. And albeit everybody is meant to relate to them, through Penkov's worldly voice, I was happy to find that Penkov is so skillful at bringing and mixing the best and worst of Bulgarian culture and masterfully invokes dreams of returning home!
I recommend this book to everybody who has lived abroad or who has ever felt the need to sing about home during his travels in lands far, far away.
Miroslav Penkov‘s short story collection, East of the West, is the most powerful of reads. We are taken into the heart and bowels of Bulgaria through the voices and situations of the various characters. This is very fine writing, and not just the name story. That won the BBC short story award of 2012 (by unanimous vote of the judges).
The story is full of symbolism. A village is divided by river and that river is used as a boundary between west and east at the end of World War II. There is jealousy caused between the villagers because those on the west bank have access to western materialism. The eastern bank villagers long for jeans and Nike trainers, however worn-out.
The villagers are allowed to meet once a year, but they try to keep contact other times by shouting across at its narrowest point, or, in the case of young lovers, by swimming to the centre and risking shots from the armed guards. The villagers once tried to maintain their identity by diverting the river so that it kept the village undivided. The result was a flooding, the church being completely drowned. The protagonist is encouraged by his loving, but aggressive cousin, to meet her at the submerged cross of this church.
His sister makes a similar swim to meet her fiancé, to show the ‘diamonds’ for her wedding the next day. Both are shot by guards. They are dressed in their finest, dead, for two funerals, each on its own bank of the river.
Somehow, in the face of his own love and career disappointments, the protagonist must move on, a metaphor for Bulgaria.
It seems opportune, at the very time that the number of Bulgarian immigrants (amongst others) is being agonised over, that the harsh lifestyle Bulgarians suffer is brought to the consciousness of other nations. It may be that it takes someone raised in the culture, but career-boosted outside of it, to write about Bulgaria with that telescope of understanding.
Penkov studied so hard that his English was excellent by the time he reached the US to further his studies. Therefore, his stories have the advantage of being written in English, not translated. Each of these stories is entirely absorbing and thought-provoking. The choice of words often holds a significance that points to larger issues. It was sobering to find that several stories were written when the author was very young. No-one, we would think in the West, should have inside knowledge or direct experience of such dark matters: the hanging of dissidents, the enforced changing of names, the lack of medical aid to severely ill people, the poverty and hunger, the lack of corporate compassion for the young or needy.
Penkov manages to get within the head of young and old Bulgarians, male and female. Filtered through the narrative is the history of a once-strong country beleaguered by political discord and powerful nations. The consequent poverty and desperation that cause alienation and anarchism come through these stories in a way that is fresh and bleeding.
The stories are both warm and dark, some so dark that it is difficult to read on. Why turn to fantasy and horror when more real events are offered here? For instance, the dead (accidentally killed?) child being lifted into position for a family photograph. Or the almost dead vagrant on the church plinth being readied, or is it desecrated, for eternity? An adolescent with his sidekick, running loose, alienated, anarchic and yet retaining some humanity, ends up in the church tower pissing down on his compatriots who are literally jumping to political command – a darkly humorous message.
The tragic and emotionally neglected young girl, her head shaved so that she can be like her dead brother, is trained to make bagpipes, their soft section the nearest to a comforting breast her world provides. When her father is arrested, she is left to care for her terminally ill mother and ultimately is left alone with her bagpipe. The reader can almost hear its plaintive sound.
A young man goes against home politics by being in America, wars with his grandfather who is eventually proved to be in the more enviable (Bulgarian) position. The Bulgarian desire to receive good education, career opportunity, a decent lifestyle, conflicts with all those values and close family ties that make life worthwhile.
The *yan* that drives and threatens to destroy the individual has a meaning beyond mere envy. It almost has a personality of its own, defining the Bulgarian and almost, his culture.
Like the medlars prevalent in the countryside of Bulgaria, these tales are bitter but necessary to assuage (literary) hunger. We can understand why Bulgarians, despite loving their country, need to emigrate to gain the basic necessities of life.
I feel the richer for reading these stories, and their content will stay with me.Penkov is due to publish a novel shortly. It is something to look forward to.