Miroslav Penkov’s collection East of the West was raved about by all and sundry when it was published back in 2012 including the BBC short story award judges who named it a winner. Being a recent convert to short stories, I haven’t read it but it’s safe to say that Stork Mountain offers something of a contrast weighing in at over four hundred pages. It’s set in the village of Klisura deep in the Strandja Mountains on the Bulgarian side of the border with Turkey within spitting distance of Greece. Once part of the Ottoman Empire, then part of the Communist state, it’s now a backwater. An unnamed American student with debts to settle has come to the village to sell his family’s land and seek out the grandfather he’s heard nothing of for three years.
The novel opens with our narrator traveling through Bulgaria, the country he left in 1991 when he was eight years old. It’s a tough journey – dust, incessant wind strong enough to shatter windows and peasants who regard him with at best suspicion, at worst murderous intent – but he finally arrives in Klisura helped by a passenger who he suspects might be his grandfather carrying a live rooster. The rooster, it seems, is to help a young girl, apparently suffering from a fever and the American’s grandfather has been called upon to slaughter it to ease her misery. The grandfather is contemptuous of such superstitious nonsense. As a teacher he knows that a doctor will do more good. Soon it becomes clear that Aysha is a victim of Saint Kosta’s fever which strikes annually before the saint’s day long celebrated by the nestinari, a Christian sect who danced on live coals. Several other children in the village are similarly afflicted but Aysha is the daughter of the imam. This is a Muslim village, the Christian half deserted after the Party tempted them away with the promise of modern city flats. It’s not long before our narrator realises that nothing is quite what it seems in Klisura, home to many storks who mate and raise their young on its roofs. Before too long, he’s fallen in love with the wrong woman and landed himself in all sorts of trouble just like his grandfather before him.
Such a brief synopsis does little or no justice to Penkov’s novel which weaves folklore, dreams and history through its long and winding narrative, often turning back on itself. This is an area long beset by division and conflict – both political and religious – and still riddled with superstition. Our narrator is an unreliable one but his grandfather is even more so, smartly pulling the rug from under his grandson’s feet on more than one occasion as he unfolds his own story and the story of Klisura, each with its many convolutions. Penkov’s writing is beautifully expressed but it’s also very funny at times: ‘My erections are more frequent than your calls’ complains Grandpa to his grandson; ‘her father, upon hearing the baby’s girlish cries, lay down, closed his eyes, and had a stroke right there on the floor of the birth-room. Entirely out of spite’ says the imam’s daughter of her father. It’s not an easy read, bewildering at times with its many stories, myths and legends overlapping with history, but it’s worth the effort.
You’d think it would be hard to come up with a similar novel but Louis de Bernières’ Birds without Wings popped into my head while reading it. Set not a million miles away in a small Anatolian village riven by religious differences, it’s a love story which also charts the rise of Ataturk, Turkey’s founder. Well worth seeking out.