The mythical sweep of Miroslav Penkov’s epic novel, Stork Mountain, reaches back 1300 years, embracing the lives of Bulgarians, Turks, Greeks, Thracians, Romans, and Slavs in the Strandja Mountains, an area bridging southeastern Bulgaria and Turkey. In the village of Klisura, the Bulgarians live on one side of the river, Turks on the other, though Greeks have also dwelled in the area. To this historical mix, Penkov (an American, born in Bulgaria) inserts his unnamed American narrator, a university student who has returned to Klisura to sell his portion of the family land in order to pay his debts. What he wanders into is a hornet’s nest of hostilities, not simply against his grandfather (who has remained in the village) but religious conflicts that have led to family feuds, abductions, murders, and warfare—plus an almost classic East/West split with religious animosities exacerbated by Cold War tactics and agendas, especially forced conversion.
Perhaps it’s inevitable that the American finds himself falling in love with one of Klisura’s young women. Elif takes him to an ancient walnut tree covered with storks’ nests because that’s where she keeps her stash of marijuana, acquired from her university friends. She also guides him there, to her secret place, where she can escape her father’s control. He’s the village imam, with traditional attitudes about women, embittered because his daughters are not men. “When I was little,” Elif tells the American, “I’d watch the minaret from the yard and listen to my father singing, his voice so pretty, deep, loving. And I’d imagine he sang not for Allah, but for me. I was a really stupid girl.” To this, the narrator adds, “No television, no radio, no books other than the Qur’an. Only a handful of girls were deemed decent enough to be her friends. No boys allowed. She was sixteen before her father let her travel to the city and even then he came along to guard her. ‘For sixteen years,’ she said, ‘I hadn’t set foot outside this mountain.’” When Elif finally talked her father into letting her attend the university, he gave in but she could not live there. She had to commute two hours each way the days she had classes.
The narrator’s grandfather was sent to the village years ago, ostensibly to be Klisura’s new teacher, but the Party also had other ideas—the forced conversion of the Turks. To the historical split between the Bulgarians and the Turks (the Communists and the Muslims), Penkov adds a deeper layer of religious conflict, the nestinari, traditional fire walkers of Greek origin, who visit the village once a year, and help cleanse the village of its evil spirits, fever, and hysteria. On the summer day when the nestinari return this year, the American thinks that their fire-walking has become little more than a “show for the tourists,” who drink and carouse in the area. But when an outsider walks across the red coals and badly burns his feet, followed by the nestinari crossing the coals but not burning theirs, the young American begins to think differently. Moreover, Elif’s younger sister, Aysha, who has been sick for some time, walks across the coals not only with no damage to her feet but with an end of her sickness.
I’ve been dwelling on incidents on the surface narrative, which is only the ectoplasm that provides Stork Mountain with its structure. The real center of the novel is tradition versus change, the continual battle between the two, as it involves a land dispute that threatens to alter village life totally. Because Klisura is located in what might be described as a natural wind tunnel in a valley in the mountains, the property has become a valuable site for energy developers who want to buy up the houses, tear them down, and build windmills in their place. The split with those in favor of this move and those against it once again pits the Turks and the Bulgarians against one another. And, as the story delves deeper into the area’s past, parallels begin to emerge between the American and Elif (who run off with one another to escape her father’s wrath) and Grandpa and an earlier love for a girl from another ethnicity/religious background.
There are amazing scenes in the story, some of them a few paragraphs long, others going on for several chapters. In one brief incident, two young shepherds wash sheep bells in a trough of milk in order to mellow their sound. In another, Elif and her American sneak through a gap in the border fence between Bulgaria and Turkey in order to meet with her friends on the other side. That scene is repeated much later in the novel when Grandpa tells his grandson about his similar crossing years earlier to elope with the Muslim girl he had fallen in love with. Later, his grandson will say to him, “You have to help me steal Elif.” Then there are numerous historical references to similar events involving these characters’ ancestors, engaged in similar cross-border conflicts, their religious saints, loves, and squabbles.
Finally, the storks that return to the area each year for the mating season. Early in the story, Grandpa rescues an abandoned baby stork with an injured wing. That stork, that they call Saint Kosta after one of the historical figures from the area, survives, but is never able to fly. Instead, because of its attachment to Grandpa, Saint Kosta follows him around and lives in the house with the old man, taking on increasing human qualities. And just as Saint Kosta’s attachment for Grandpa keeps him alive without being able to fly, the main characters settle into more grounded lives. Flight may no longer be possible but perspective and understanding have their own rewards.
Stork Mountain is a richly layered saga, magnificent in every way.
Miroslav Penkov: Stork Mountain
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 448 pp., $26.