Nonfiction certainly holds no exclusive claim to teaching readers about another country or its people. Take for example Miroslav Penkov's East of the West: A Country in Stories. As the subtitle indicates, Pavlov's debut collection of short stories takes us inside his native Bulgaria.
The eight stories tell of life in and the people of Bulgaria in a guileless, congenial fashion. They reflect the mix that is part of Bulgaria, a country that may long for the West but retains pride in its Eastern roots. At least here, the history of Ottoman rule, the longstanding issues of the Balkan states, and the installation and fall of Communism remain relevant.
What role does history play in Bulgarian society? The first story, "Makedonija," opens with: "I was born just 20 years after we got rid of the Turks." It proceeds to recount the man's discovery of love letters his wife received in 1905 from a soldier fighting to free Macedonia from Turkish rule. The title story is set in two hamlets on the opposite banks of a river. They used to be one one village but following the Balkan Wars and World War I, the hamlet on the west side of the river is in Serbia and the one on the east is in Bulgaria. Set in part in the 1970s, the story tells of a romance between a boy and a girl on opposite sides of the river. "The Night Generation," meanwhile, involves a family proud of its Turkish ethnicity but caught up in the Communist government's late 1984 directive forcing citizens of Turkish heritage to adopt Bulgarian names.
The divergent generational views of the communist era are more fully seen in "Buying Lenin," which seems to have at least a touch of autobiography to it. It tells of a Bulgarian who comes to America in 1999 to attend the University of Arkansas, Penkov's alma mater, and his exchanges with his grandfather, who fought for the Communists in 1944 and rose in the national party. With a touch of love, the grandfather and grandson call each other names like "you rotten capitalist pig" and "you communist dupe." When the grandfather's village reverts to communist times, the grandson goes on eBay to but him Lenin's corpse.