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13 May 2016updated 28 Jul 2021 5:05am

What Belongs to You is a love story that captures Balkan psychology

Garth Greenwell's debut novel is marked by a feeling that consolation, or even moral action, is impossible.

By Maria Dimitrova

On the first page of Garth Greenwell’s debut novel the narrator, an American expat teaching English at a prestigious Bulgarian high school, enters a public lavatory in Sofia where he meets Mitko, a 23-year-old occasional prostitute with “a hypermasculine style and an air of criminality”, who will become the object of his unrelenting desire and fascination. The narrator is struck by Mitko’s parallel transparency and mystery:

For all his friendliness, as we spoke he had seemed in some mysterious way to withdraw from me; the longer we avoided any erotic proposal the more finally he seemed unattainable, not so much because he was beautiful . . . as for a kind of bodily sureness or ease that suggested freedom from doubts and self-gnawing, from any squeamishness about existence.

As with any great portrayal of obsession, What Belongs to You is built on the play of opposing forces. Nothing is clearer than selling sex for money, but Mitko, despite the tenderness of their transactions, remains opaque to the narrator.

While the erotic charge between them lights up the opening and closing sections of Greenwell’s tripartite novel, this is no gauzily romantic vision of an American innocent abroad. The relationship is defined by the ambiguous word “priyatel”, which Mitko uses for his clients: it means both “friend” and “lover”. After his stints in construction and as a loan-shark enforcer, Mitko has nothing to sell but his beauty, while it lasts; the narrator has a steady if unglamorous job that makes him well off by Bulgarian standards. This imbalance permeates all of the couple’s exchanges. The narrator’s longing puts him at Mitko’s mercy, but his money and freedom grant him power of his own.

The first part of the novel, published in 2011 as the standalone novella Mitko, follows the hustler’s betrayals, from minor manipulations to oblique threats of harm, until the narrator decides to end the relationship. As a story, this is not unfamiliar: brief satisfaction, enduring loss. But it is in his prose that Greenwell displays his mastery. A relentless logic undergirds his fluid, sighing sentences, an exacting observation of the profit and loss behind the lovers’ interactions: “. . . there’s something theatrical in all our embraces, I think, as we weigh our responses against those we perceive or project; always we desire too much or not enough, and compensate accordingly.” Greenwell has a very cool way of transcribing sexual heat. The narrator’s rigorous accounting of desire turns him into a sort of clinician of his own experience. He holds the reader at a distance. We don’t know why he is in Bulgaria. He doesn’t have a name.

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The second part of the novel widens the aperture to show the narrator’s brutal youth in rural Kentucky, from the loss of closeness with his homophobic father to betrayal by his first love. Rendered in a feverish, uninterrupted, forty-page paragraph, it’s a kind of catalogue of dispossession, but Greenwell is too scrupulous to give us the past in standard flashback; this episode bursts into the narrator’s consciousness after he receives news of his father’s imminent death.

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The third and final section returns to Mitko, who reappears, gravely ill, after two years spent in prison. Implicitly, the novel aligns his incoherence and lostness with the post-communist world he inhabits, disfigured by the various ideological streams that have swept through Bulgaria in quick succession. Hollowed out by a demographic crisis, produced by low birth rates and wholesale emigration, Bulgaria is “a little less real, fading away, some fear, to nothing”. It is a landscape defined by post-Soviet “randomness and glut”, with abandoned monuments such as an uncompleted cathedral that the narrator sees as “a ruin in reverse, caught rising rather than falling”. This impression of futurelessness applies to Mitko, too. The novel painfully conveys a sensation of foreshortened life trajectories.

I happen to be a graduate of the American College of Sofia where Greenwell taught, and I was impressed by his feel for the country and ear for its language. He captures a certain Balkan psychology and predicament, in which the possibility of moral action seems constrained, or even absent.

Towards the end, the narrator realises that his devotion to Mitko is no use; love bestows innocence but cannot sustain it. Mitko is poor and ailing. The narrator understands that this man whom he has “in some sense loved” has remained “alien” to him because: “Love isn’t just a matter of looking at someone [. . .] but also of looking with them, facing what they face . . .” Mitko’s tragedy is not the narrator’s. The dense and close examination of life doesn’t redeem it, and What Belongs to You offers no consolation for the narrator or the reader, except in the very fact of this record.

What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell is published by Picado (191pp, £12.99)

This article appears in the 11 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The anti-Trump