This book tells the human story of the last border of Europe. It is where Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey converge and diverge, borders being what they are. It is also where something like Europe begins and something else ends which isn’t quite Asia.
This is roughly the geography of it, but the map will only take you so far before you find yourself in the ancestral forest that teems with shadows and lives out of time. That is where I ended up going anyway. It may be that all borderlands hum with the frequencies of the unconscious; after all, borders are where the fabric is thin.
Author Kapka Kassabova is from Bulgaria, but has lived abroad since her late teens, currently residing in Scotland. In the ethereal, sublime Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, she writes a rich, layered travelogue of journeying back to the Balkans and Bulgaria’s frontier with Greece and Turkey, looking at the ethnography, topography, history, myth and folklore of this land that’s at once both familiar and foreign to her — a home that she feels drawn to even though she simultaneously feels a stranger there. The idea of the emotional impact of emigrating, of being forever caught between places and eras even within oneself, is a powerful one, explored throughout in various forms.
It’s precisely when you have lost your roots that everywhere you go matters hugely.
It’s also a meditation on borders, on their meaning and changing natures, and for that it’s incredibly relevant to the current moment. A shifting and elusive border in Bulgaria was the opening to the west during Communism, and many residents from behind the Iron Curtain made their way there, ostensibly vacationing at the Black Sea, with the secret intention of making a dangerous, even deadly, attempt to cross.
Just by being there, the border is an invitation. Come on, it whispers, step across this line. If you dare. To step across the line, in sunshine or under cover of night, is fear and hope rolled into one. And somewhere waits a ferryman whose face can’t be seen. People die crossing borders, and sometimes just being near them. The lucky ones are reborn on the other side.
Kassabova examines what scars and memories still remain from this time, meeting current border guards, hearing stories and seeing markers from the past. It’s eerie, unsettling, perhaps made even more so by the constant reminders that this ugly history isn’t far buried in the past. There are so many people remaining who have direct lines to this time, or played roles themselves. Kassabova weaves in some of her own memories of childhood Black Sea vacations and the meaning of things she saw then with the context of all that’s come in adulthood.
It was the border that had brought us together and opened up a whole new world for me, but now that I was about to cross it again, I felt a terrible wrenching, a sense of impending loss so great and so out of joint with the present that it had to be from the past.
Her eye for detail is impressive, to say the least, and makes this complex history memorable through meaningful storytelling. Her prose is breathtaking. I don’t know if any descriptors really would do it justice. It’s eloquent, sophisticated; it gave me goosebumps.
These kind of genre-bending works often have one element that ends up suffering or is shoehorned in to the more dominant one: either the history feels potted or the travelogue and memoir component is weak, or just the art of it all is less polished, but there are no missteps here. Kassabova’s connection to place and the stories she shares all fit together, even blend together, seamlessly across time and countries.
Parts of this area have edged into the geopolitical spotlight recently, with the conflict in Syria and the role of its porous border with Turkey. In a cafe in Istanbul, she watches the everyday rhythms of young refugees waiting and hoping to cross, and in a moving chapter titled “A Kurdish Love Story,” sits in the kitchen of a family of Kurdish refugees.
They’re also waiting to cross, they can see the border but they’re stuck and stymied. “What is a bridge for, if you still can’t cross the river?” is a question hanging unspoken. She records their stories, listens to their difficult choices and options or lack thereof, and presents it to the reader in a way that is utterly, devastatingly effective: “When I asked the girls about their friends back home… the eldest girl simply began to cry, though she made no sound. Her tears fell on the kitchen table. I touched her hand and I was suddenly seventeen again.”
Back in Bulgaria, she meets with people who have different kinds of connection to the border — smugglers, human traffickers, retired border guards who did terrible, legal things to keep communism held tight behind its border. These stories have gaps, some that she can fill in with her own extensive knowledge of the region and typical behaviors, or what she’s witnessed, and others that stay shrouded in mystery. Often, it’s the confusion and discrepancy between stories that tells a bigger one: “Perhaps these crimes were not his, or not only his. Perhaps over time he had become a convenient repository of other people’s darkness.”
All over Strandja, the bubbling springs narrate: what goes in pops out, what goes in pops out, even a hundred years later. And what is a hundred years to a spring?
The book begins and ends with visits to the Strandja, the mountain range along Bulgaria’s southeastern border with Turkey. It’s a mystical, historically rich place, layered with lore, beliefs, and rumors from the multiple cultures that have inhabited the region over time, regardless of changing national borders. Kassabova depicts it vividly, and her gifts for observation and translating those feelings and impressions for the reader, carefully threaded through lessons of history, are an extraordinary strength and what make this such an exceptional work overall. Anyone could’ve written this history, but the value here is in Kassabova as the guide.
There’s a lot at play; like the Strandja and its surrounding area the narrative is multi-faceted and shifting, changing perspectives and viewpoints often, but there’s not a single page where it goes wrong or feels like too much. A masterpiece of history, geography, culture, and geopolitics, made brilliantly readable through marvelous, poetic prose. Perfection.
“Perhaps the story of all our lives is the story of what is lost and how we go about looking for it.”
“There is no and. You look disappointed but sometimes it’s like that. You come to the end of the road and it’s over.”
“We arrive naked and depart with empty hands. It’s good to practice lest we forget.”
“What is a border, when dictionary definitions fail? It is something you carry inside you without knowing, until you come to a place like this. You call into the chasm where one side is sunny, the other in darkness, and the echo multiplies your wish, distorts your voice, takes it away to a distant land where you might have been once.”
Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe
by Kapka Kassabova
published September 5, 2017 by Graywolf Press