Stork Mountain by Miroslav Penkov: Stories within stories

Cover image 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 Cover image 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.

14 thoughts on “Stork Mountain by Miroslav Penkov: Stories within stories”

  1. New to me, this one Susan – sounds good but for a length of time with little distraction which is rare at the minute … although the two examples of ‘comedy’ makes me think twice! Great review

    1. Thanks, Poppy. It does need a reasonable amount of concentration but the writing is quite beautiful at times and the convoluted history of the region is fascinating.

    1. Thanks, Christine. I’d thoroughly recommend de Bernières’ South American trilogy. It came before Captain Corelli and has been much overlooked since, I think.

  2. I’m reading this at the moment. I loved the beginning, but have reached a point where other books are always calling to me more. Does it have an ending worth reading, or does it continue in a similar style all the way through?

    1. It carries on in much the same vein throughout so you might want to heed those calls! I found the ending satisfying but they way to it is somewhat circuitous.

      1. OK. Thanks for the information! I’ll not abandon it yet, but will hope that it grabs my attention again soon. It is a beautifully written book so if the ending is satisfying I’ll persevere for a while longer.

  3. I’ve never heard of this one, but you make it sound intriguing. I don’t read a lot of books from that corner of the world – this sounds like a good one to keep in mind. I do have that Louis de Bernieres book, but I haven’t read it yet.

    1. Not a part of the world that I know at all, from books or travel, which was part of its attraction for me. It certainly gave me lots to think about.

  4. This does sound interesting to me, and the theme of villages where people of different religious traditions lived together torn apart endlessly fascinates and upsets me. I thought of Birds without Wings when reading Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh. Do you know it? Set in India in the years after Partition it tells of the tearing apart of a village where Muslims and Hindus lived peacefully for generations by forced relocation. There is, of course, a forbidden love affair. Moreover it is a short book with the most intense, edge of your seat ending you will ever read!

    1. I’ve not come across the Singh – thanks for the tip. It sounds well worth seeking out. Yes, it’s fertile ground for fiction and in this case, of course, the Communist Party adds a further divisive factor.

    1. Thanks so much, Deepika. I do hope you enjoy it. Two votes for Khushwant Singh! Time to do a bit of investigation for me.

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