Miroslav Penkov: “The Letter”

12/22/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in A Public Space 13, 2011.

One of the first things the tough sixteen-year-old Bulgarian woman, Maria, tells us about her rich neighbors, the British Missis and Mister, aside from the fact that neither is British, is that Maria thinks “Missis would be prettier still if she didn’t pretend to be some other woman.” It’s obvious that she’s married for wealth and comfort, for she spends all day drinking, sighing, and occasionally surreptitiously sleeping with the hide-buyer (“And I know no pretense will ever justify your lying down with hide buyers”); it’s even more obvious that Missis has everything that Maria is capable, given her limited experience, of desiring. (Even in her dreams, she is criticized for thinking too small.) And yet, at the same time, it’s clear that Maria doesn’t fully understand any of this: hasn’t come to terms with her own kleptomania, nor with her fixation on identity, specifically whether it’s born from nature or from nurture. This story, then, is about Maria coming to terms with her own abandonment issues, and the hair’s-breadth that saved her two-year-old self (and doomed her twin sister) from a teacher’s steely smack: left in an orphanage by their mother, only Maria was saved by her grandmother; Magda, who suffered a retarding swelling in her brain, was left behind. “How’s life treating you?” isn’t the question; according to Maria, “Life doesn’t treat you. People do.”

Along that line, life — by which I mean people — has been savage. “Uncle” Pedro, the village bus driver, is an act away from pedophilia, and yet he’s one of the “good” people to Maria; as for Magda, even with a brain condition — or perhaps because of it — she’s been raped by someone at the orphanage, and they’re now planning to throw her out because she’s with child. (Earlier, Maria had considered that it might not be so bad, in a “parallel world” to be in Magda’s shoes, oblivious to all the harm done to and around her.) Desperate to help her twin, Maria semi-blackmails Missis into helping her, and while her plan is to write to her absent father — the mother’s no use, she hits the grandmother up for money five times a year, vanishing as quickly as she appears — Missis ultimately gives her the $1,000. Now, this is more money than she’s ever seen, and the story hinges on Maria’s realization of this, for although she picks up Magda and brings her to the clinic, she suddenly pauses and runs off instead. “I am my mother’s daughter,” she thinks, which is about as cruelly ironic as it gets (nurture leading to her nature), but she winds up torn between escaping the village and her own greed. She spends it all, first on a fashionable haircut, then expensive new clothes, and finally an extravagant meal at a hotel and club — “I barely touch them, but still I order more.”

She lives this one moment like an extravagant dream, and, unable to think big enough, she spends the money so that she no longer has the ability to live in a fantasy. The letter she has written to the father she does not know remains unsent, and her fictions about him working on the giant Ferris wheel in London are maintained; the life she can hardly bear to live is better than the illusion can cannot bear to lose. Is it so surprising that such a girl would choose to stick to the only world she has known? Penkov thinks not, and so her character’s final line is an echo of everything we’ve heard earlier in the story out of her mother’s mouth: “How’s life treating you? I need some money.” When the tone of the piece is doing as much, if not more, of the work as the story itself, you know you’ve got something going on; I only wish in the end there was a little bit more to help distinguish this story from the dozens of others with similarly sorrowful lessons to teach.

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