Disorderly and drunk

Posted on December 30, 2012

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In time of great danger, you may walk with the devil until you have crossed the bridge: Bulgarian Proverb

3903802-the_first_bridge_BulgariaYou may be wondering how we’ve gone from Botswana to Bulgaria without passing through Brazil or Brunei. More likely, you’re rubbing your distended post-Christmas belly, boozy-breathed and as hepatic-eyed as a goose about to meet its pâté maker and couldn’t (or can’t) give a sh.. monkey’s.  In which case, God Rest Ye Merry, and skip (if you have the energy) to the next paragraph. For those still here then, an explanation. Having already read a number of books from Brazil, I was always planning on breezing by.  If we’re very lucky and have been good children, I’m hoping that at some point in the not too distant future we’ll get a guest blog for Brazil so don’t feel too hard done by just yet.   Brunei, on the other hand, is not so much a breeze as a block.  Even the lovely people at the Commonwealth Writers’ Group haven’t been able to help.   I’m faced with two options in English. One, Some Girls: My Life in a Harem by Jillian Lauren, is a book about, well, a girl in a harem and her life therein.  The other is a collection of articles by the Bruneian journalist, Rozan Yunos.  My hesitation with both of these is that I’m not sure they’ll give an accurate picture of Brunei. The former because it’s written by a foreigner with a very particular story to tell, and a sensational one at that. The latter because Rozan Yunos is the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Development and is also known as ‘Mr Brunei’.  This doesn’t fill me with confidence that we’ll get a very nuanced view of the country and having read some of his articles online, I’m not inclined to temper that view.  So, while I grapple with these choices and continue to search for alternatives (their Constitution’s in English), I’ve decided to be disorderly and go straight to Bulgaria.  Well, as mentioned, it is Christmas. And, given that that is so, I’ve been good to myself (as if eating my body weight in every conceivable combination of fat and sugar isn’t), and have selected East of the West: A Country in Stories by Miroslav Penkov.

Short stories are not my favourite genre.  I often find them out of balance structurally. Too much beginning, little middle, and not so much an end as an abrupt killing off.   But when time is limited and life full of distractions as is the case in December, they can be very useful.  Penkov, though, has won me over.   Each story is a perfectly balanced three-course meal and the collection as a whole works as a taster menu for the delights of the homeland he so obviously loves and misses as he now lives in the U.S.  Any of the stories in the collection could easily be worked into a screenplay – a genre that demands a perfect three act structure and which often turns successfully to short stories for inspiration.

The story from which the collection takes its name, ‘East of the West’, which won the BBC International Short Story award in 2012, is a case in point.    It is the story of a village which spans two sides of a river and has been split in two by the changing line of the border leaving one half in Bulgaria and placing the other in Serbia.   Every five years the authorities allow the villagers to visit the other side for one day.  Penkov says that he read about this village in a newspaper. Yes, it exists. Incredible. Talking in the Guardian, Penkov notes:

‘I used this as the basis of the story, but I wanted to inject my own life into it, [to write about] myself, abroad in America and in many ways alone, with a huge body of water between me and the people I love … It’s a very sprawling story, in which I tried to show myself how to take life’s losses and not view them as punishments but as something liberating, and ultimately leading to freedom.’

These imaginings take the form of a family divided by the natural river, and the man-made border.  A brother, Nose, and sister, Elitsa, trapped on the Bulgarian side fall in love with people on the more commercially liberated and western-gazing Serbian side.  But both love affairs are as doomed as the lovelorn icon painter’s attempts to redirect the river round the west bank village, thus rejoining it with the eastern side in Bulgaria, which only succeeded in drowning the church containing his icons. Elitsa is shot by border guards as she swims across the river to meet her fiancé, and Nose’s lover is unable to wait for him and marries another.

All the tales in the collection have an element of the absurd, employed most notably in  ‘Buying Lenin’ a story in which a grandson who has left Bulgaria to study in America tries to buy Lenin’s corpse on eBay to send to his Granddad who misses the good old days of Communism.  And all of the tales have sprinklings of fairy-tales, fragments of history lessons, slices of realism, questions of ethnicity, and above all, a sense of love, loss, yearning, and letting go.  These elements are pulled together in an understated whole through Penkov’s stripped back English and small-scale narratives. He doesn’t try to do too much with each story, limiting the number of characters, forgoing sub-plots, yet imbuing his characters with complex emotional lives which drive the plots.

All in all, East of the West is a really satisfying collection and lives up to its sub-title – A Country in Stories. You do come away feeling you’ve learnt a lot about Bulgaria, its people and history, but also about how it feels to be separated from the country that made you and that you have to love across a huge body of water without a bridge.

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