7 December 2012
“East of the West” by Miroslav Penkov: A Critical Analysis of Craft
1. Objective One: Analysis of Application of Elements of Craft
“East of the West” by Miroslav Penkov is a great example of how to weave various elements of craft into a short story. From the beginning the plot of the story is strong, containing a clear tension and crisis. The plot is enhanced by the characterization of Nose by his interactions with his family, his cousin from the town across the river, and the river itself. Penkov’s use of the river as a symbol for the oppression of the people and the barrier to family and greater things makes it almost a character in and of itself. In all, it contains many examples of how to affectively utilize various elements of craft.
Penkov’s plot structure is rife with tension and holds the conflict throughout the piece. There is rarely a moment in the story that could be called quiet or uninteresting. This holds the tension throughout the story so that even in apparently docile moments, such as when the family is preparing Nose’s sister Elitsa for her impending wedding there is foreshadowing of the tragedy to come (171). The entire family participating in helping her try the wedding clothes on is almost like the dressing of a body for burial, though the reader is unaware of this until the next paragraphs. Penkov does not have anything in the story that is extraneous or unnecessary. This succinct form of storytelling keeps the reader engaged with the plot and keeps the flow of the work at a steady pace.
The device of placing the beginning paragraph of a future Nose anticipating seeing Vera again lets the reader know that at some point things may work out for him. This makes the majority of the story a flashback until it comes full circle to Nose taking a cab to Vera’s place in Beograd. By starting the story in this way the main character’s want is clearly shown. His driving need is not necessarily a fantastical want like world domination or murder, but it’s a universal want that most readers can identify with, acceptance and love. This is an oversimplification of the themes of the plot, but at its heart this story is about love and the need to find a home in others. The epiphany for Nose is the discovery that he is his own home and he is not tethered to the earth and his past as he once thought.
The way Penkov moves back and forth through time is seamless and is another example of his skill at plotting, and even characterization since the story is told from Nose’s first person point of view. The reader neither feels as if there is information lacking, nor are there info-dumps that would leave the reader confused. As time progresses and after the death of his sister and eventually his parents his story moves on and his character remains rounded, though he is stuck in the drudgery of the depressed town and all the memories it and the river holds for him. The use of “summary, indirect, and direct dialogue” is also well done (Burroway, Stuckey-French, and Stuckey-French 74). Penkov’s use of summary allows the time changes to shift without jolting the reader out of the story and is a great example of flashbacks and flash forwards.
The characterization of Nose was enhanced through his interactions with his family and his internal machinations and interpretations. The economic use of dialogue allows the interactions to be even more powerful and characterizing. For example when Nose comes home to discover a priest, the town doctor, and his entire family under the trellis in the front yard his father explains, quite beautifully, the Nose’s sister, “…requires an Olympic pool to cleanse her” because she’s pregnant (Penkov 170). This overexageration by the father characterizes him and shows the reader the level of their beliefs regarding such things. It works to characterize Nose’s father as a person with traditional sensibilities.
The use of dialogue in the characterization of Vera helps round her character out. The clipped, almost snobbish responses she gives Nose every time they speak shows the reader her feeling of superiority. However, when she speaks to Nose asking if he considers her Serbian or Bulgarian allows her a moment of character building vulnerability (163). Simultaneously this conversation characterizes Nose to show he isn’t a weak individual, but proud in his heritage. A character’s silences can be just as effective as any monologue if not more so, as is exampled in her closing her eyes and staying silent when Nose questions where she lives. This brief conversation bonds the characters to each other and the reader and effectively creates the opportunity for the introduction of the church.
Penkov utilizes summary in describing the conversation of Nose and his sister Vera discussing her coming nuptials and immediately after discussing the family talking about the wedding. The only words highlighted being “Elitsa” and “My God, child…take your jeans off” (Penkov 171). The sparing bit of dialogue when separated from the main part of this section is rife with symbolism and even foreshadowing in the information it doesn’t give the reader. The focal point is Elitsa and pointing out her not wanting to take her jeans off is a symbol for her holding on to the promises of the West, even though her family is dressing her in her traditional bridal clothes. This nuanced blending of dialogue and summary make the story move, help create characterization, and provide symbolism within the story that a writer can study and learn from.
One of the most powerful parts of this story; however, is the use of symbols and objects. The river is the most literal and powerful of all of these. In some ways it became a character as well. Penkov weaves details like that silver earrings and the church that were swallowed up by the river, very similarly to Noses sister, to exemplify the countries the these towns bordered. No matter how hard the people tried to get around the bureaucracy it found a way to take even more from them. The river’s action of cutting off family members from each other was ubiquitous with the countries as well. This beautifully dangerous representation of a government and how it can both give life and care for its people, but also destroy and separate them was very well done and something every author can learn from. The beautifully written line describing how the bomb blew up the church in the river and, “a large, muddy finger shook at the sky” was such a poignant turn for the character.
Much like the river that entombs it, the drowned church holds great symbolism. Each of the young lovers meet up at a church swallowed by the river as if they are looking for salvation within each other on its spire. Not only is a church often associated with the refuge for people seeking guidance and protection, but the fact that the river (acting as the government in many ways) has left only a small section of the church for them to stand on in the middle of the river. This small section of church is very much like the sliver of hope that these lovers hold for being together. It very much symbolizes how the government separates the families and loves. Even the last lines elude to the river. When Nose recognizes he is neither a river, nor is he stuck in the memories like the earth (181). Not every story needs to be heavy in symbolism, but if a writer wants an example of how it’s done well, “East of the West” would be a good story to study from.
2. Objective Two: Lessons Learned
Penkov’s story is a great study in how to appropriate a variety of elements of the craft of fiction. He not only follows the rules of crafting fiction well, he does it in a seemingly easy manner. His carefully crafted descriptions avoided clichés well, such as when he described Vera’s eyes as, “…very dark, shaped like apricot kernels” (Penkov 162). His ability to create imagery through fresh metaphors, similes, and other descriptors worked towards strong characterization and even to pacing. Penkov’s use of active voice kept me in the rhythm of the story and it’s something that I strive to keep consistently throughout my longer pieces. I have to say I was left a bit unsettled by the story, but I enjoyed it and I’d like to write a piece that resonates with readers in the same manner.
When I look at how this story and its careful craftsmanship can apply to my own work I am immediately pulled into the details. I love giving detail for everything, and strive to use new descriptions that are unique, but understated in their creation. The best descriptions are the ones that stay with a reader, and are almost poetic in their placement in the narrative. I am honestly not sure what I will end up writing, as far as a specific genre is concerned. However, whether I write picture books, contemporary women’s fiction, or fantasy/science fiction I think utilizing the knowledge of beautifully worded descriptions takes any story to the next level.
As Burroway et al point out, you have to avoid metaphoric faults that can lead to mixed or clichéd metaphors that can detract from an otherwise strong piece (34). When Nose describes the words of the priests at Elitsa’s funeral as, “piled on my heart like stones” the reader can almost feel the crushing weight of sadness he feels at the loss of his sister (173). Another point in Penkov’s story where this is illustrated is on page 172 when Nose describes Mihalaky riding down in the river, “in smoke and roar”. The words are separated in a standalone stanza which does more to highlight the hauntingly beautiful words and encapsulates a scene in a succinct two sentences. It is not that I write too much, it is more that I am learning new devices to be utilized to make my writing more impactful. While this particular section is not a metaphor, but rather a straight description, it is still enviable in its ability to portray the image of the funeral ride down the river.
The occasion to slip into passive voice is something that has been a bit of a struggle for me before this class as well. I had been told by a few published authors that very generously read my first pages that I had a couple of spots that slipped into passive voice, but I had no idea what that was supposed to mean, much less how to fix it. This class and our books have helped enlighten me to what it is and how to avoid it. Of course the instruction in class to burn all adverbs from my vocabulary was something I won’t soon forget.
Over all the story resonated with me because it is so haunting. The descriptions and emotions felt fresh and raw. It felt like an open wound that the author had willingly laid bare for the world to see, and whether it was based on a real experience or not, he captured the tension and pain of a man with no country. I hope to one day write a piece of fiction that resonates with readers and is as eloquent as “East of the West”.
Burroway, Janet, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey-French. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. 8th ed. Boston: Longman/Pearson, 2011. Print.
Penkov, Miroslav. “East of the West.” The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. Ed. Laura Furman. New York: Anchor Books, 2012. 157-181. Print.