A man returns to his native Bulgaria from America and receives an education in family history, romance, and local folklore.
The narrator of Penkov’s debut novel (East of the West: A Country in Stories, 2011) is a broke graduate student. In hopes of a financial boost, he heads back to the mountainous patch of Bulgaria his family fled during the Communist era, looking to sell off his share of family land. But his grandfather has already sold that land, which is being developed into wind farms (threatening the highly symbolic migratory storks). That gives the story its initial conflict, but the drama Penkov means to conjure up has a longer reach. The family home sits at the confluence of Turkish, Greek, and Slavic cultures, as well as Christian and Muslim faiths, and the story draws on regional folk stories, most prominently the nestinari—“fire dancers” who perform rituals to sanctify the place. As the narrator becomes increasingly immersed in the local society, he learns more about his grandfather’s complex history and also falls for Elif, the seemingly unattainable daughter of a local imam. “Don’t bloody your hands with superstition, stay away from the madness,” our hero is cautioned. But he can’t quite resist it. Penkov can write elegantly about history, folklore, and mythology—which he means to argue are very much part of the present—and the early push and pull between his hero and Elif has humor and tension. But the novel doesn’t persuasively mix its varied elements, sometimes overlayering the grandfather’s back story and local lore. And though the chapters are typically brief and breezy, they’re often bogged down in wooly observation, softening the impacts of the tragedies and revelations that mark the closing chapters.
An earnest and somber tale of rural life that gets tangled in its metaphorical brush.