31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 23: “Buying Lenin” by Miroslav Penkov

May 23, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

From East of the West

“There was no good reason for me to be in America.” This thought, placed in the mouth of the Bulgarian expat, twentysomething first-person narrator of Miroslav Penkov’s story “Buying Lenin,” helps immediately to set up the central conflict: between the new world and the old; between a young man, who has fled his home in Eastern Europe for the promise of a new life in the United States, and the young man’s grandfather, a staunch adherent to the Communist philosophy and heritage that suffered a mortal wound when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. The young man leaves home, not because he is oppressed or starving – “at least not in the corporeal sense” – but because he carries in his blood “the rabies of the West.”

In his grandfather’s eyes, this disease is inextricably entangled with capitalism. And he has good reason to think this: when the narrator is practicing English prior to his move, the phrase he repeats over and over is “remember the money.” “Phrases like this, I’d heard, helped you to break your tongue.”

Penkov wrings much comedy out of the young man’s attempts to acclimatize himself to idiomatic English once he has arrived in Arkansas: “Those of us for whom English was a second language were instructed what to expect when it was fixin’ to rain. What ‘yonder’ meant, and how it was ‘a bummer’ to be there ‘yonder’ with no umbrella and it ‘fixin’ to rain.’ ” In America, the words the narrator studied back home fail to make sense in combination: “What was a hotpocket? I wondered. Why was my roommate so excited to see two girls across the hallway making out? What were they making out?”

But there is additional comedy in the distance between American culture and the narrator’s cultural touchstones. When the narrator arrives in the States, he is greeted by two men and a woman, who “were from some organization that cared a whole lot for international students.” The nature of this organization quickly becomes apparent:

“Welcome to America,” they said in one warm, friendly voice, and their honest faces beamed. In the car they gave me a Bible.

“Do you know what this is?” the girl bellowed slowly.

“No,” I said. She seemed genuinely pleased.

“These are the deeds of our Savior. The word of our Lord.”

“Oh, Lenin’s collected works,” I said. “Which volume?”

As far as the narrator’s grandfather is concerned, Lenin’s collected works are indeed the word of the Lord, or at least, the lord of his universe. He credits Communism with saving his life during the Second World War; with introducing him to his wife, at whose grave he attends each day since she died to read aloud to her from Lenin’s writing; and for providing him with a raison d’être. When the Eastern Bloc begins to fracture after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the grandfather feels bereft because he has lost the two things that gave his life meaning and purpose: his wife and the Communist Party. Indeed, he is convinced that it was the fall of Communism that killed his wife: ” ‘Her cancer was a consequence of the grave disappointments of her pure and idealistic heart,’ Grandpa would explain. ‘She could not watch her dreams being trampled on so she did the only possible thing an honest woman could do – she died.”

At university in the States, the narrator learns about Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, and is amazed: “My God was there such a thing? A collective unconscious? If so, I wanted in. I longed to be a part of it; connected, to dream the dreams of other people, others to dream my dreams. I went to sleep hoping to dream vivid, transcendental symbols.” This, of course, is quite close to a definition of what Communism represents for his grandfather, although the narrator would doubtless be hard pressed to see it that way. He would be more likely to associate Communism with the crawfish he and his grandfather used to catch when the narrator was a boy:

Grandpa would give me a stick and a bag. Hundreds of twitching crawfish at our feet: poke their pincers with the stick, and they pinch as hard as they can. I learned to lift them, then shake them off into the bag. One by one you collect.

“They are easy prey,” Grandpa would say. “You catch one, but the others don’t run away. The others don’t even know you are there until you pick them up, and even then they still have no idea.”

This is the flip side of communal idealism: the notion that people who long so desperately for a community can easily be manipulated to follow the crowd. “Give us the child for eight years,” Lenin wrote, “and it will be a Bolshevik forever.”

Whatever distance may exist between the narrator’s ideals and those of his grandfather, it is nevertheless obvious that the two men love each other, and feel the physical gulf between them acutely. “Grandpa, there is so much water between us,” the narrator says on the phone at one point. To which his grandfather responds, “But blood, I hope, is thicker than the ocean.”

In the end, the narrator attempts to extend an olive branch to his grandfather by buying what someone on eBay is advertising as the body of Vladimir Lenin. “This was a scam, of course,” the narrator thinks. “But what wasn’t? I clicked Buy It Now, completed the transaction. Congratulations, Communist-Dupe_1944, the confirmation read. You bought Lenin.” The comedy here is mixed with melancholy: the year 1944 is the year the narrator’s grandfather claims he hid from the Fascists in a tiny, cramped dugout along with fifteen other people, before finally emerging to find that the Communists had been victorious. And of course there is much irony in the idea of the corpse of Lenin being purchased via one of capitalism’s most Platonic manifestations: an Internet auction site.

The final stages of the story, sentimental though they may be, represent a kind of detente between the two opposing viewpoints as embodied by the narrator and his grandfather. In the end, blood does prove thicker than the ocean, and ideologies prove malleable in the face of the enduring need for human connection and understanding.