After Kapka Kassabova this was my second ever book by Bulgarian author. I’m pretty sure this is in no way a significant sample, but it is also the second one originally published in English, it seems not many Bulgarian authors get translated, but relatively many emigrants get published, which is great. Penkov similarly to Kassabova emigrated in a quite young age and completed his education in English. Because of that this collection of short stories also touches on some of the similar topics as Kassabova’s Street Without a Name.
This was one of not many short story collections where I did not feel the stories were too short and could be developed more. Penkov achieves perfect timing with his stories, thy read like small gems, each of them different and written in a different voice, even if they sometimes touch on the same topics. There are eight stories in this collection, some of them read like fairy tales, other have almost dystopian feel to them. One thing they all seem to share is the underlying current of sadness or feeling of loss. There is a story of an old couple in a retirement home, where the husband discovers old love letter’s addressed to his wife and is forced to reexamine their relationship and his own courage or lack thereof, at the same time trying to support his daughter through a difficult time, all of it told in a delightfully grumpy tone, that at times feels tragic. Another story is about a village divided by a border arbitrarily set on the river, in both parts of the village there are Bulgarian families, but now some of them have found themselves in Serbia. Both parts of the village occasionally meet to spend a night celebrating, which at one point leads to a tragedy, it is a tale of loss, but also how loss allows us to free ourselves from the confines of our past and focus on moving ahead. Yet another story is a lovely tale of loneliness but also hope, where a young man leaves Bulgaria to study in US, but stays in touch with his fiercely communistic grandfather, constantly bitterly arguing, but on the other hand providing him a sense of belonging, his roots.
I will not describe all eight stories, each of them is worth reading. Penkov manages to create very distinct voices and each story has its own atmosphere. At the same time all of them seem to be soaked in the sense of loss and removal, contemplating our place in our past in relation to the place we come from (especially if we emigrate) and the traditions that made us. He seems to consider are they more of a safety net, something helping us find stable ground or maybe they are more suffocating, something to be shed in order to build a new life not scarred by wounds of the past. As always with such questions there is not one answer, but he asks the question in a great way. I really enjoyed this collection, it is also worth mentioning that despite the undercurrent of sadness, those stories often are also really funny, describing the absurdities of life, or very sharply and bluntly dealing with the inevitable.
Here are two quotes from the first story, about the old couple in the retirement home:
I wish it was not that man but I who’d known Nora, back when she was closer to a beginning than an end. Such is the simple truth – we’re ending. And I don’t want to end. I want to live forever. Reborn in a young man’s body and with a young man’s mind. But not my body and not my mind.
The view is nice, the air is fresh. It’s not so much that I don’t like it here. It’s more that I really hate it. The view and the air, the food, the water, the way they treat us like we’re all dying. The fact that we are all dying.