Border, by Kapka Kassabova

Kapka Kassabova’s Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe is an example of why I like to wait until the very end of the year/new year to write my year in review post. I just finished it and I think it pushed aside other contenders for my favourite non-fiction of 2017. I learned about Border when Rebecca (@Ofbooksandbikes on Twitter) recommended it at Book Riot.

Kassabova was born in Bulgaria, which her family left in the early 1990s after the end of Communist rule. She now lives in Scotland. For Border, she roams the region where Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey meet, writing a blend of travelogue, memoir, and history. Kassabova is a poet, and it shows not just in the book’s language, but in what I’d call her metaphorical thinking: the book is full of rivers and bridges, for instance, natural borders and marks of human attempts to cross them. Border alternates short, “poetic” sections with more straight reportage, but the border between these two approaches is one Kassabova keeps permeable. Myth, mysticism and history mingle; sometimes it’s hard to tell if the tale of a border crosser is literally true, if she really met the same woman who carved her name in a border tree decades ago, or just another Zora with a similar story. But all the stories of people confined by, forced across, or fleeing over borders feel “true” in some way. Whether she has met them in a story or in reality, Kassabova brings people to vivid life on her pages.

This region has long been contested territory, with peoples expelled from one country to a “homeland” they’ve never known because of ethnic, religious and linguistic differences. Places and people are renamed, over and over. She meets Turks who used to be Bulgarians, Bulgarians who used to be Greek. Villages lie empty, or one group of refugees occupy houses abandoned by people forced to flee in the opposite direction. A shepherd is imprisoned for 14 years for calling a greeting to a fellow shepherd across a river that is also a border. In the mid 2010s, when Kassabova visited, refugees from Syria and elsewhere were repeating this history. No wonder the book has a section on “eternal return.”

Here’s a bit of that section:

From Needle Point, you can almost see the invisible sea border, but then you’re never sure what it is you glimpse in the sea mist; everything looks as if it might be a memory in the making. This place felt to me less like a place and more like a continuing moment in time, a single perfect Pontic note. Lashed by the lodos from the south and Siberian currents from the north, you stand in a portal. Now you’re mortal, now you’re not. Now it’s you, now it’s everyone who passed here before you.

This is followed by a chapter called The Good Siren, a more straightforward account of the Frenchman who designed lighthouses for the Ottoman Empire, one of which is on Needle Point, and the former keeper who was forced out of the job when the Turkish navy took over the lights. But sections like this can feel equally mythical:

Each lighthouse has its unique frequency. When ships see a yellow light every three seconds, they know it’s Limankoy Feneri.

“It must be comforting to see a familiar signal on land when you’re far from home,” I said to the keeper, and he nodded, pleased.

“The signal has never failed,” he said with quiet pride.

This is a rich book full of stories, a meditation on belonging, home, loss, and the meaning of borders and crossings. It’s beautiful, sad, angry, despairing and hopeful.

Reading at this time, I thought “It’s not very Christmas-y!” But of course it is. The nativity is a story of a family living under an occupying power, forced to travel from their home, then to flee across a border for safety. What could be more timely reading than Border? (Still, I was glad to alternate it with some Christmas-set Harlequin romance and The Dark is Rising). What a great way to bring my reading year to its almost-close.

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3 Responses to Border, by Kapka Kassabova

  1. Rohan Maitzen says:

    This sounds absolutely fascinating: not only do I want to read it for myself but I think my mom might like it for her birthday, so thanks to you and also to Rebecca for drawing my attention to it. I traveled a bit in this area years ago and have long had a historical / cultural interest in it.

  2. Sunita says:

    I was trying to remember why this book sounded familiar, and then I realized that Alex Balk at the Awl recommended it this past summer. I was feeling a bit overloaded on contemporary immigration-related writing, so I passed and forgot to make a note of it for later. You’ve reminded me that it needs to get back in the queue!

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