An American professor teaching in Bulgaria meets a young hustler named Mitko in the public bathrooms beneath Sofia’s National Palace of Culture. He pays Mitko for oral sex, and, intrigued by him, continues to seek him out again and again. So begins “What Belongs to You,” Garth Greenwell’s slim, gorgeous debut novel. Tracing Mitko and the professor’s relationship over the next few years as it deepens and blurs into something impossible to classify, “What Belongs to You” is a profound study of desire, possession and obligation.
In Mitko, Greenwell has created a mercurial icon of desire. He is both childlike and worldly, permissive and withholding, earnest and deceptive, innocent and brutal. Greenwell reveals a wealth of character through Mitko’s small gestures: the fastidiousness with which he cleans a computer screen, his careful removal and hanging of his shirt before an encounter in a bathroom stall. Like Nabokov’s Lolita or Thomas Mann’s Tadzio, we see Mitko exclusively through the lens of his beholder’s obsession. This makes him endlessly fascinating, but fundamentally unknowable.
Greenwell is an accomplished poet, and the prose of his first novel shows a lovely poetic sensibility. Its imagery is at once sensuous and tightly controlled. Long sentences are composed of independent clauses strung together with commas, as if they were originally split up by line breaks. At 187 pages, “What Belongs to You” barely escapes the nebulous category of novella. (An earlier version of its first section was published in 2011 as a novella, titled “Mitko,” by Miami University Press.) Its brevity calls attention to its amputations. Mitko vanishes for months at a time, then for two years. In the novel’s second section, a remembrance of the narrator’s scarring childhood and adolescence in the American South, Mitko is never mentioned, though his presence can be felt throughout. We never see the violent subculture of hustling, drugs and illness to which Mitko returns when he steps out of the narrator’s apartment into the cold streets of Sofia. Greenwell instead gives us an enigmatic portrait of youth and vitality being steadily corroded by a world of exploitation. (In an old photo, the narrator notes the wholeness of Mitko’s now broken tooth.)
Though set ostensibly in the present day, the novel feels curiously timeless. The narrator recalls, as a teenager, walking among campaign signs juxtaposed with Halloween decorations, but the election year and the names of its candidates are omitted. The shadow of communism cast by Sofia’s remaining Soviet apartment blocks provides the novel’s main historical marker. Technologies such as Skype and hookup sites feature prominently, but these are functional plot devices rather than markers of time. Aside from Mitko, whose name assumes the same sonic and visual significance to his character as does Holden Caulfield’s or Lolita’s, most characters are unnamed, identified by their first initial. All this lends the novel the quality of a fable or parable; Greenwell’s post-Soviet Sofia comes to resemble Mann’s dying Venice.
“What Belongs to You” fearlessly pursues the theme of possession evoked by its title. Even in its most heated moments, Greenwell never allows the reader to forget the transactional nature of Mitko’s relationship to the narrator, and how this distorts over time. Rather than dampen the eroticism, this only makes it darker and more challenging. This is a hot book, for all the seamy physical and emotional territory it inhabits. From its opening to its desolate conclusion, “What Belongs to You” vividly brings to life a desire that may be inextricable from shame.