“East of the West,” Miroslav Penkov’s striking debut story collection, depicted his native Bulgaria with wide-ranging empathy disciplined by sure-handed craft. He saved all the mess and loose ends for “Stork Mountain,” a sprawling, wildly ambitious novel into which Penkov crams centuries of history and folklore, murky financial intrigues in post-communist Europe, religious conflicts dating back to the Ottoman Empire (Attila the Hun comes into it too), and a family drama unfolding over three generations. By the end, the author’s ambitions have outrun his ability to harness them, but if “Stork Mountain” is sometimes incoherent, it is seldom dull and always intriguing.
Things begin simply enough, with the unnamed narrator taking the bus to Klisura, a tiny town in the Strandja Mountains on Bulgaria’s southeast border with Turkey and Greece. There he finds his grandfather, whom he hasn’t seen since he emigrated to the United States with his parents in 1991. Now, 15 years later, he’s a typical American: “student loans hanging over my head like swords. Maxed-out credit cards, debt collectors calling.” He plans to pay them off by selling his share of the family’s land — except that apparently his grandfather has already sold it to buy ruined houses in the Christian section of Klisura.
Why? To prevent the construction of a wind farm that would destroy the nesting places of migrating storks whose annual appearance prompts an ancient ritual. For 1,300 years, at the feast of Saints Constantine and Elena, men and women possessed of a holy fever have danced barefoot across live embers to celebrate spring. The grandfather’s long-dead wife was one of these so-called nestinari; he seeks to protect a tradition that, according to legend, gained a Christian village in this remote region freedom to practice its religion in the days of the Ottoman Empire, after a sultan fell in love with a beautiful dancer.
In 20th century Bulgaria, it’s mostly Muslims who have been persecuted, and when the narrator falls in love with Elif, fiercely independent daughter of the local imam, he stumbles into a morass of seething ethnic tensions. Some of them have to do with his grandfather’s first stay in Klisura back in the 1960s, when he taught school to Muslim and Christian children alike — a commendable act of nonpartisanship or part of a covert effort to erase Muslim identities, depending on whom you ask. Nothing is for sure as Penkov pours a multitude of voices into a river of narrative that winds through Bulgaria’s past, obliterating boundaries between the known and the imagined.
From the sly grandfather to the wizened crone who once loved him, rebellious Elif to her scheming father, each has his or her own reasons for confiding their portion of this epic tale to the American visitor, and as their motives shift, the stories change too. Storytelling has a power beyond literal truth, we see in the novel’s earliest pages, when the narrator recalls the lies he told in America to transform himself from a bullied newcomer into someone “exotic, interesting, enchanting.” In Bulgaria, the pile-on of folklore, history, and the odysseys of two families slowly forms a landscape: the jagged contours of a region perennially overrun by outsiders at the crossroads of cultures hostile yet so intermingled that imams are descended from Christian janissaries and ethnic Turks who emigrate find themselves more strangers in Turkey than in Bulgaria.
Soaring into the fantastic while claiming an anchor in gritty reality is a tricky artistic strategy, and Penkov doesn’t quite pull it off. In the final chapters, his narrative becomes so surreal that the boundaries between characters dissolve, and we’re no longer sure who’s telling the story, or living it. Elif’s palpably conflicted, agonizingly human voice is particularly missed as the narrator takes over to bring his grandfather’s story to a convoluted climax that basically pulls the rug out from under everything that’s gone before. We may not have expected literal truth, but we were expecting some sort of resolution, instead of which Penkov throws up his hands and leaves us with: Well, who knows what’s really real, anyway?
This maddening prevarication, however, is preceded by so much wonderful material that in the end you just have to grant Penkov the license to fail big. “Stork Mountain” is by no means perfect, but it’s thoughtful and thought-provoking, with a passionate faith in the redemptive powers of art. Those qualities are a lot more interesting than perfection.
By Miroslav Penkov
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 436 pp., $26
Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, reviews books for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and The Daily Beast.