GUY RAZ, host: Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Our book today is fiction, but it's very much about the true past and present of a Bulgarian. It's a collection of eight short stories by a young writer named Miroslav Penkov. The book is titled "East of the West." In this story, "Buying Lenin," the young narrator finds the perfect gift for his unreconstructed Stalinist grandfather.
MIROSLAV PENKOV: (Reading) I did not expect to stumble upon an auction for Lenin's corpse. You're bidding for the body of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The body is in excellent condition and comes with a refrigerated coffin that works on both American and European current. The buy it now button indicated a price of $5 flat. This was a scam, of course, but what wasn't? I clicked buy it now, completed a transaction. Congratulations, communistdude1944, the confirmation read. You bought Lenin.
RAZ: That is Miroslav Penkov reading from one of the strange bittersweet and vaguely fantastical stories in his new collection "East of the West: A Country in Stories." It's a book populated by lovers in different countries who swim across a river to meet teenaged hucksters, partisan fighters and bagpipe makers, all characters in a world Penkov had to leave behind when he came to the United States a decade ago. Miroslav Penkov joins me now from the studios of BNR Radio Bulgaria in Sofia. Miroslav, welcome to the program.
PENKOV: Thank you so much for having me.
RAZ: And I should mention that you do live in the U.S. You teach at the University of North Texas, but you spend - wisely spend the summers outside of Texas in Bulgaria.
PENKOV: Yes, that's correct.
RAZ: Earlier in the introduction, we heard you read from the story. It's called "Buying Lenin." A lot of it is about the back and forth arguments between the Stalinist grandfather and the grandson in America over capitalism. And of course, the grandson eventually goes to what could be just the, you know, the best example of capitalism, eBay, where he finds for sale the corpse of Lenin.
PENKOV: I think the idea is in writing short stories, it's always easy to come up with one preposterous idea if you want to. And one day, I was walking down the street in Bulgaria and I was thinking, well, what is the most capitalist thing you can possibly do, and that's buying Lenin on eBay. So it's easy to come up with the ideas. Supplying the characters was difficult then. And I tried to imagine the two sides of the chain. You know, if you have on one hand an old man who's very much dedicated to the ideals of communism, to the lifestyle that communism provided, and then on the other hand, you have a character as the young Bulgarian now who is trying to find luck abroad and very much wants to differentiate himself from the past and forget it and deny it and destroy it basically.
So those were the characters. So it starts with the idea, but then you have to supply the characters. In my mind, the story will not work if you don't have characters who are treated with dignity and respect and work as human beings.
RAZ: This book is about Bulgaria, but it's also about America in some ways and about your, I guess, about things that you probably experienced and maybe are reflected in the book. You only came to this country 10 years ago as an adult...
PENKOV: That's right.
RAZ: ...and yet, you wrote this book in English, which is not your native language. It's just - it's a language you just learned, really, in the past 10 years.
PENKOV: Right. The whole idea of ever writing in English seemed silly to me. I didn't believe that was possible. I was writing in Bulgarian, and I felt miserable in the beginning. I felt very restricted. I had to change my way of expression. I'm translating the stories into Bulgarian right now...
PENKOV: ...and they don't sound the same. There is a certain economy and simplicity in my English prose that I have to invent because this is the English that I know.
RAZ: So this book is not...
PENKOV: I'm not capable...
RAZ: ...it's not available in Bulgarian yet.
PENKOV: Not yet. I'm having a very hard time translating the stories, because I have to reinvent the voices. There are seven first-person narratives here, seven very distinct Bulgarian voices that I tried to render them and make them believable in English. So I have to reinvent the voice, and that's proven to be the most challenging thing so far.
RAZ: My guest is Miroslav Penkov. His debut collection of short stories is called "East of the West: A Country in Stories." Miroslav, this story, "East of the West," it's about lovers on either side of a river.
RAZ: One side of the river is in Bulgaria, one side is in Serbia. And they cross the river once a year - once every five years. There's a festival between the two villages, but this is about lovers trying to bridge and divide literally.
PENKOV: Right. Right, right. And there is a lot in this story. There isn't a river on the border between Bulgaria and Serbia like that, but I invented it because you can do these kinds of things in fiction. But there are villages much like the one in the story. These territories to the west of Bulgaria, they're populated by people who are gradually losing their sense of Bulgarian-ness. And so I wanted to write about these people, but then I always wanted to understand a few things about myself, of which my biggest fear is that now that I live abroad, I will lose my Bulgaria.
And I tried to explore a character who is in a similar situation but also to see if perhaps how damaging to a person the connection with the past can be. And by the end of the story, this character loses everything. And I don't look at that story as a sad story or a depressing story because I believe that he finds liberation. And I wish I could learn to be like this character, to let go and still care, still honor the family, still love the family but not have this difficult time leaving everything.
RAZ: How do you reach back to those places, and specifically the places that you have never been or seen or experienced because they happened decades, centuries before you were born? I'm thinking of the young writer Tea Obreht, who wrote "The Tiger's Wife."
RAZ: She's a Serbian-American writing about a time and a place that she, of course, was not...
PENKOV: Well, here's the thing. I don't believe that she needs to see it. I think it's in her blood. No amount of research can supply what you really need, which is just to look deeper inside of you and to just listen carefully to the voice of these ancestors. I mean, when I wrote "Buying Lenin," it's as much a story about me and my grandfather, but it's also a story of allegory, which I always looked upon as the grandson and the grandfather as the same character. And it's the character in modernity in present-day communicating with his roots, with the ancestors, with all the dead grandfathers behind you.
And I would very much like to invent my own Bulgaria with its own history and folklore that are not so much the history and folklore that I've read about but that I have imagined. You carry it so deep in you that you just have to listen to it very carefully, and it's going to come out.
RAZ: That's author Miroslav Penkov. His debut collection of short stories is called "East of the West: A Country in Stories." It's about Bulgaria. Miroslav, thank you so much for joining me.
PENKOV: Thank you so much for having me on.
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