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Lexicon Drunk

THE BULGARIAN AUTHOR Miroslav Penkov, who writes in English, is more at home in his adopted language than his discontented characters are in their own skins. His splendid prose can be fleet, leisurely, colloquial, or formal. And this mastery was hard-won, if we can judge from the narrator’s experience in “Buying Lenin,” one of the droll, sad tales in East of the West, the first collection of Penkov’s fiction. A character named Sinko tells us that as a boy in Bulgaria, while his “peers were busy drinking, smoking, having sex, playing dice, lying to their parents … or making bombs for soccer games, I studied English.” Accepted (like Penkov) to college in Arkansas, Sinko soon learns that lurking behind his second language is a third, the one that says, “it was fixin’ to rain” and “a bummer” and “yonder.” He continues: “I was exposed to words I didn’t know. … What was a hotpocket? I wondered. Why was my roommate so excited to see two girls … making out. What were they making out?” So the narrator plunges into his second immersion course, soaking in the vernacular until “the words rose liberated. I was ecstatic, lexicon drunk.” 

For Penkov’s readers, the result is a thoroughly convincing American idiom that carries the history of the Balkans on its back. Penkov’s prose nearly resembles the sly, lucent style of Bernard Malamud: his English is blessed with both the license of a visitor and the inherited rhythms of the Old World. The boldly metaphorical (“My loneliness rose up in me like steam over a barren field;” “The moon, tiring, swims toward the horizon”) abides gracefully with the colloquial (“I said, ‘No, it’s all good.’ But on the inside I was, like, You think?”) and the epigrammatic (“You can’t get to know someone by shoving a finger up their nose. But if someone shoves their finger up your nose, you learn some things about them”).  

The skillful linguistic shifts in East of the West are matched by other peregrinations. Rebounding from the United States to Bulgaria and back, most of the stories also jockey from the present to the Balkan past, both historical and legendary. These journeys home are spurred less by nostalgia than by an inflamed case of homesickness. For Penkov’s characters, homesickness is active and has agency, which is why their narratives are so painfully and hilariously effective. Links to the past, even the distant past, are as close and clear as a printed genealogy. From grandfather to grandmother to grandfather, the malcontents in East of the West climb and re-climb their family trees, which branch out more often than not into the story of a nation.

Between 681, when the kingdom of Bulgaria was founded, and 1396, when it was invaded by the Ottoman Turks, this bellicose and proud country twice commanded much of the Balkan Peninsula. Surprisingly, Bulgaria’s collective memory of ancient empire is fresh: for a century and a half, the country was under Byzantine rule, and then “under the fez” for half a millennia. Finally freed from the Ottoman yoke in 1878, Bulgaria sided with the loser in both world wars and ended up in 1945 as a Soviet-style one-party state, pitifully reduced in size and nearly broken in spirit. It was only after the fall of the Soviet Union that the country regained some autonomy. 

The characters in East of the West compulsively revisit Bulgaria’s zigzagging fortunes and tangled emotional legacy. The first story’s first paragraph (delivered by the first of many grandfathers)—is characteristic.

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.

In “The Letter,” more recent history ignites the imagination of a sixteen-year-old girl who lives with her grandmother.

The winter I was born, Grandmom says, wolves roamed the streets and snatched away babies. She says money was toilet paper and coupons were the new money and you had to stand in line for coupons days in a row. Three hundred coupons bought you a loaf of bread. Five hundred bought you cheese. She says a wolf snatched my father and chewed his dick off. And then, she says, your father came home a man without a dick.

While distinct, Penkov’s protagonists share salient attributes. They are for the most part kind, grumpy, restless, devious, anxious, candid, envious, proud, desolate. Most of these characteristics, explains the expatriate Michael in the story “Devshirmeh,” can be compressed into one Bulgarian word. “Yad … is what lines the insides of every Bulgarian soul. It’s yad that propels us, like a motor, onward. Yad is like envy, but it’s not simply that. It’s like spite, rage, anger, but more elegant, more complicated. It’s like pity for someone, regret for something you did or did not do, for a chance you missed, for an opportunity you squandered. All those feelings in one beautiful word. Yad.”

Yad fuels the story’s comedy when Michael, stranded in Texas to be near his daughter, stops at his ex-wife’s house to pick up the girl. Buddy, a fellow Bulgarian, answers the door.

My wife’s new husband emerges before me, absurdly obese in the door frame. He’s wearing flip-flops, American ones, a single string between his wet, puffy toes, long shorts that drip water on the parquet, and a cell phone clipped to his waistband.

At last my wife appears from behind Buddy, in a two-piece red swimsuit, her bronze skin oiled up and gleaming. She’s trying to dry her hair with a towel, but it’s not her hair I’m looking at. …

“Buddy, hey, buddy,” Buddy says. “Up here,” he says and snaps his fingers. “Yeah? You like those? Ten grand each. We got them done in Dallas. Best investment I ever made.”

Yad shimmers through in Michael’s pathetic references to his ex-wife as “my wife.” No, she is not his wife, he later lets on, and no, his name is not Michael but Mihail. Heirs to a country where every ethnic and religious group has at one time or another been the outsider, all of Penkov’s characters are displaced persons, at home or abroad. By letting them tell their grim, funny stories, Penkov has afforded them a kind of asylum. And by returning the American language to us in a reinvigorated form, he has given his adopted countrymen a gift, and his literary peers something to live up to. 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 is a fiction writer and critic based in the Boston area.