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 collection. 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.
Bulgarians, both at home and abroad, are the subject of the wistful, tragic, and funny stories in this impressive debut. The title story opens in 1970 with a boy meeting his cousin, Vera, at a reunion held every five years. Her home, previously located in his village, is now in Serbian territory, and the river that divides them plays a central role in their ensuing relationship. In "Buying Lenin," a young Bulgarian in college in Arkansas enjoys a deepening relationship with his grandfather, who sees the West as morally corrupt. In "Devshirmeh," a divorced Bulgarian man living in Texas relays his great-grandmother's story to his young daughter. The standout "A Picture with Yuki" finds a Bulgarian man bringing his Japanese bride to his native land in the hopes of overcoming fertility problems. Deep in the countryside, among Gypsies, the hope of life and the sadness of death combine and a tourist's camera is put to use in ways no one could have expected. This rich and serious work by Penkov, who was born in Bulgaria and came to America in 2001, marks him as a talent worth watching.