With his first tentative sexual liaisons in the bathrooms of the National Palace of Culture
and his reluctant quest to discover the true worth of the strange and mysterious Mitko, the unnamed protagonist of Greenwell’s novel draws us into Sofia’s underground gay world. As the pages unfold, this teacher at Sofia’s American college begins to take his first diffident steps toward an emotional connection in a country where such actions are still decidedly more taboo than in the West.
At first there’s just halting conversation as our narrator speaks to Mitko in this strange and subversive location. He feels an anxiety made up of equal parts desire and unease at the mystery and beauty of Mitko’s presence. The mutual attraction is instant, even in this damp and chill bathroom. For all of Mitko’s friendliness, he seems to possess a forbidding quality and a “bodily sureness or ease,” suggesting a freedom from doubt
or any squeamishness about his existence. What begins as a transaction (money for sex)
grows into something much more complicated as pretense falls away and Mitko steps into the stall and unbuttons his fly. Our hero suddenly realizes he will pay whatever price Mitko wants.
Greenwell transports his narrator through the various stages of self-doubt and self-awareness; through his numerous quests for love and acceptance; through his bitter disappointments; and finally through
the daunting labors of betrayal. Over the next weeks, our hero repeatedly seeks Mitko out, inviting him to his apartment, desperately driven by the desire for more time and privacy. It soon becomes clear that Mitko lives hand to mouth, spending months shuttling between places, sometimes sleeping with friends,
, sometimes even walking on the streets until morning.
Gripped by pleasure, embarrassment, and a look so full of promise, our narrator is frustrated that fragments of information are all that he can understand of Mitko’s
stories. Mitko seems to enjoy the power he wields, “this power to be please and to withhold his pleasure.” This leads our narrator to wonder how he
became one of these furtive men in the dark who offer whatever is asked for a price. There’s a sense that Mitko’s stray meetings in dark rooms with its “shadowy commerce” burns with genuine luminosity.
The relationship takes an unexpected turn when he’s invited to spend some time with Mitko in the beautiful port city of Varna on the Black Sea coast. A blurred world at first glimpsed through glass streaked with rain, picaresque Varna, with its hotel close to the famous Sea Garden, symbolizes our narrator’s helpless desire. Soon enough, ambivalence strafes through the relationship. Mitko’s mood darkens when he accuses his lover of saying one thing and then another. In a world where nascent fantasies run deep and seductive, the narcotic, violent powers of Mitko’s spell are part of his attraction. As these two men face the highs and lows, each new twist of fate begins to tear them further apart, even as they grasp for an understanding of the other’s feelings.
Toward the end of the story, the protagonist arrives--albeit in a disturbing way--at a realization: his desire for Mitko allows him to be “naked before the world” in a life that has up until now been filled with inhibition and missed chances. The best passages are when the narrator unfurls a heartbreaking account of his childhood--his father’s cruelty, his face “twisted in disgust,” a father who because his son was gay would no longer lay claim to him. When our narrator finds that he has syphilis, the discovery is just another confirmation of a mistake that has embodied his years in this country. The diagnosis is false comfort, however,
as is it false comfort for Mitko, who confides to our narrator that he needs money for injections because the pills he’s taking are not working.
In his complex stream-of-consciousness prose style, Greenwell’s book is constantly haunting and evocative. This deeply metaphorical novel is ultimately about an intimate, private passion shaped by a man who must learn to fly on his own terms, and his lover, torn between his terrible desperation and his desire to survive.