A young, unnamed American teacher of English, a resident of Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, is the narrator of Greenwell’s utterly absorbing 190-page debut, What Belongs to You. The teacher becomes involved in a sexual relationship with the 23-year old mercurial Mitko from the city of Varna, who leads a shiftless existence, having made no progress as such in the capital.
Varna is also the setting for part of the novel, with side excursions to a number of other Bulgarian locations, including the city of Plovdiv, and a small town called Blagovegrad in the Pirin mountains. In the early sections of the novel, you read the book just as much to learn about Bulgaria – depicted in large part as a benighted, doomed country - as to learn about the core relationship. However, as the narrative progresses, the spotlight hones in on the two protagonists, while the emotional screws tighten. Yet the detached, almost patrician tone never falters.
What Belongs to You is by no means an indulgent, relationship-obsessed novel and the manner in which it looks intelligently and perceptively to a wider social context - to the human condition that transcends - is notable. There is a wonderful cameo set in a park in Plovdiv, a powerful description of a young father and his daughter. Having held her in his arms, the father finally lets go of the little girl who, it is observed, will soon know of “the leave-taking and loss we spend the rest of our lives trying to restore.”
In the course of the tale, the young teacher narrator surveys his own troubled upbringing, recalling his sense of alienation from his father because of his homosexuality and the effects this has had upon his self- confidence.
Meanwhile, in the present, as the months pass, Mitko slips in a short time from a picture of relative health and well-being to the look of the virtually homeless, reliant on the charity of friends such as the teacher, it seems, for places to stay, while engaging in dodgy sexual transactions. The brilliance of the portrait is that one is never sure how genuine Mitko’s troubles are, and to what extent he may be dramatising them to extract financial help from the relatively privileged American.
The question is never resolved, in fact the whole premise of the story pivots on the seeming ambivalence of motive on both men’s parts. “Never before had I met anyone who combined such transparency (or the semblance of transparency) with such mystery, so that he seemed at once over-exposed and hidden behind impervious defences,” declares the American of his elusive Bulgarian friend.
For its mastery of tone and its expert drawing together of a number of disparate elements, Greenwell’s narrative feat is utterly remarkable and the final ten pages amount to one of the most moving passages this reviewer has ever read in contemporary fiction.
Garth Greenwell: From Bulgaria with Love (pic courtesy Twitter)