Sex behind the scenes at Sofia’s National Palace of Culture

The desperate sexual compulsion at the heart of Garth Greenwell’s novel is as oppressive as its Soviet-style setting

9 April 2016

9:00 AM

9 April 2016

9:00 AM

What Belongs to You Garth Greenwell

Picador, pp.204, £12.99, ISBN: 9781447280514

Garth Greenwell’s debut novel is as dreary and oppressive as the Soviet-era apartment buildings among which it takes place. But presumably this was intentional. Having grown up in a rural backwater where ‘disease was the only story anyone ever told about men like me’, the book’s American narrator, a teacher in Sofia, seeks to escape shame and tedium by having sex with random men in the toilets beneath the National Palace of Culture. ‘It wasn’t so much pleasure I sought as the exhilaration of setting aside restraint,’ he says: ‘a thrill so intense it was almost suicidal.’

It is here that he meets Mitko, a skinny, covetous Bulgarian whose increasingly desperate interventions in the narrator’s life provide the structure of the book as well as its most memorable writing. At its core, What Belongs to You is an exploration of desire. It questions how purely transactional sex can ever be, even when it’s paid for.

The narrator says:

I knew Mitko was performing a desire he didn’t feel, but then there’s something theatrical about all our embraces. I think . . . always we desire too much, or not enough, and compensate accordingly.

After Mitko lashes out and abandons his priyateli — a Bulgarian word he uses to mean boyfriend, client and everything in between — an email arrives asking the American to return home to his dying father. The middle section of the book recalls how that same father disowned his son (‘A faggot, he said, if I’d known, you would never have been born’), tracing the young boy’s sexuality as it develops in a condition of abject longing. ‘I’ve sought it ever since,’ says the narrator, deciding not to go back. ‘The combination of exclusion and desire.’

Between visits from Mitko, the writing moves into a lower gear. Our narrator offers up local knowledge, telling us in guidebook boilerplate that ‘Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city, escaped bombing in the second world war’ — which runs the risk of seeming parochial, especially to European readers. But this is also an aesthetic choice. ‘Bulgaria is a dying country,’ say the students at the international school where our narrator teaches. Mitko too, is in decline, ‘gazing at a world in which he had never found a place and that was now almost perfectly indifferent to him’. It is only in submitting to reckless desire that the two men find a temporary release.

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