18. Mitko, by Garth Greenwell

20 Mar

Mitko by Garth Greenwell

Last summer while vacationing in Bulgaria I picked up my copy of The Paris Review and read a stunning and unforgettable story about a semi-anonymous, dangerous BDSM sex scenario between gay men that coincidentally was also set in Bulgaria. The country is so homophobic and the material was so graphic and disturbing that I felt somewhat anxious about having The Paris Review in my luggage, which was amusing, but probably not a first in that magazine’s history.

The story made me uncomfortable in many ways, but I haven’t been able to forget it in the ensuing months, so I went ahead and ordered another of Greenwell’s published works, a novella called Mitko, which is a about a gay American college professor’s brief and tortured relationship with a Bulgarian street hustler.

Like the story that captured my attention, the novella is an exploration of a shameful passion that reason cannot justify. The college professor meets the hustler, Mitko, and almost immediately embarks on a series of humiliating, possibly dangerous encounters that none of his intelligence or better nature can stop.

Desire here is presented as an absolute force, divorced from rationality. Early on he writes of Mitko, who is drunk, possibly dangerous, reeking, and partially contemptuous of the narrator, clearly in it for the money…. “in my own estimation this body, the enjoyment of which I was contracting to rent, seemed almost infinitely dear.” And later, after several such encounters in a public bathroom at Bulgaria’s Palace of Culture, he brings the man to his apartment (dangerous, stupid) and writes,

“I felt myself gripped yet again by both pleasure and embarrassment, and by an excitement so terrible I had to look quickly away.”

One of the novella’s symbolic motifs is double-faces and double-sides. As a hustler Mitko is double-sided, of course, “vulnerable, over-exposed, and unrelievedly hidden behind impervious defenses.” And the narrator  has his own faces. He wonders how Mitko has transformed from a prosperous boy to a homeless man, and of himself

“how it was I had become one of these men in the dark, offering whatever was asked to rent something we wouldn’t be given freely, accepting without complaint our own diminishment.”

There’s double-sidedness as well in the novel’s treatment of passion, whose overwhelming physical, emotional, sensual force Greenwell meets with an outpouring of language, which is “as always interposing itself between ourselves and what we see.” The paragraphs sometimes run for several pages, and the whole, short 86-page novella sometimes feels like one long, very articulate, breath.

There’s tension in this treatment of passion. Can all this analysis say anything about desire in the right register? Is this book finding the truth about this affair, or obscuring it? Is there even truth to be had between two people? Greenwell seems to think not, explaining that in sexual encounters,

“our responses are never in any simple way our own, where they are always balanced against the responses, perceived or projected, of our partner, and also against our own fears and enthusiasms, our claims and generosities, our failure of nerve, so that sincerity, authenticity, flees ever more swiftly away from us, like a shadow that we ourselves cast out. “

Or maybe the narrator is just justifying the moment because Mitko has faked an orgasm and he’s faked believing in it.

Passion in Mitko is both overwhelming and fleeting, doomed to dissatisfaction almost before the satisfaction has come. The narrator doesn’t get the thing he longs for. Maybe what he wants is not the thing but the longing. Or, in another layer, the shame. “The whole bent of my nature is toward confession,” he says.  But his confession is in such a clinical, flaying tone, one wonders how there can be pleasure in it. Until one realizes that the twinning of pleasure and pain is the point.

It’s all very thought-provoking and I really enjoyed reading it.

From some Google-stalking of Greenwell, I’ve discovered that he has a book-length novel coming out in 2016 called What Belongs to You, which seems like maybe it’s an expanded version of the story in this novella. I will be interested to see these themes drawn out more, and to read more of Greenwell’s flaying prose. Where, for example, at a Bulgarian seaside resort “elaborately themed facades” are described as having “garishness mitigated by desolation.” This is both a good echo of the dual-faces theme and—as I can attest from personal experience of traveling in Bulgaria—a spot-on accurate description of the seaside town he’s describing.




4 Responses to “18. Mitko, by Garth Greenwell”

  1. shadowoperator March 20, 2015 at 1:44 pm #

    There are several different famous quotes the substance of which is that things (and people) are more treasured in the anticipation than in the having. It sounds almost as if this is part of the source of the combined pleasure/pain the main character is feeling, though not having read the book, I can’t be certain.

  2. Zlatko Anguelov March 20, 2015 at 6:02 pm #

    I happen to know Garth, as he is the editor of my short stories I dared translate into English from the Bulgarian (they’re not yet published in the US or UK). At the time we met – in the virtual space, so far – he sent me a copy of “Mitko”. I had just published a collection of five novellas, entitled “Erotic Memories”, and we shared our love for the form. I read his novella with enormous interest, and without prejudice. I was struck by the shear force of Garth’s ability to observe his own shameful experiences. Well, shameful is a vey ambiguous notion in his case, but, as you so eloquently wrote, he seemed to be longing for narrating it. I’m saying all this, because your reflection on the novella almost 100% matches my feelings and thoughts when I read it. Physiologically, pain and pleasure are almost synonymous, especially, in the erogenous sense, and Garth, I think, is able to build a profound psychological portrayal of this synonymy. I thank you so much for your review.

    • Ivalleria March 21, 2015 at 12:35 am #

      Amazing! Thank you so much for your comment. I would love to see your stories when they are published. Will you keep me in mind? Do you have a pub date? I didn’t write enough about how much I loved the narrative voice, because of what you say, his ability to observe his own experiences. And I think you’ve put it better than I did, that his work is a psychological portrait of the synonymy between pleasure and pain. That was also true of the story I read in TPR, which was called Gospodin.


  1. 2. What Belongs to You, by Garth Greenwell | An Anthology of Clouds - January 11, 2016

    […] the book’s second section (where the new material starts after the novella version, which I wrote about—kind of incoherently—here), the narrator returns to his childhood and teenage years, exploring the foundations of his […]

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