When I lay in bed, I could hear the splash of waves on the shore as if they were outside the door. I dreamt of the lake rising in the night and engulfing the town, like an old prophecy.
Bulgarian-born, Scottish-based author Kapka Kassabova became an immediate favorite for me last year when I read her genre-bending 2017 book Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe. She has a uniquely poetic, wandering and meditative but somehow sharply focused style, and blends culture, history, (geo)politics, and travel writing into creative nonfiction like nothing else I’ve read.
I couldn’t have been more excited for her latest, To The Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace. This time, she returns to her family’s ancestral lands, the notoriously war-torn Balkans, and specifically the region around Lakes Ohrid and Prespa in North Macedonia and Albania. The two are Europe’s oldest lakes, existing for more than a million years when the lifespan of a lake typically tops out at 100,000 years at most (Baikal in Siberia is another breaker of this record). Scientists believe that Ohrid-Prespa could be more than three million years old.
Some places are inscribed in our DNA yet take a long time to reveal their contours, just as some journeys are etched into the landscape of our lives yet take a lifetime to complete. So is it for me with these lakes.
Like her other writing on European regions with tumultuous historical identities, she has a strong personal connection to this area, and brings experience from her previous forays through European lands at their extremes (“I knew from my Border journey that sometimes history’s thoroughfares are disguised as geography’s outposts, the better to fool us that the past is another country”). This time her connection is that her grandmother hailed from Ohrid, and Kassabova is affected by the links between the women in her maternal line. This particularly encompasses the generational trauma that has passed down among them, something she desperately wants to come to terms with, and end.
She always longed for something, so did my mother, and so did I. To be a woman was to lament an absence, a fault, an imminent loss. In short, to be in pain. Early on, I was certain that I didn’t want to be anybody’s mother or wife. I wanted to travel to distant lands, not to the school gates again; to live and die in peace, not surrounded by family. But some things follow us wherever we go.
A question repeatedly asked of her as she travels in the region is “Whose are you?” Kassabova traces the generational saga back to her great-grandmother, who began a trend of emigration, leaving each woman in the line since to be faced with questions about who she is, what her roots are and where they lie. These are particularly complicated questions considering the region’s history — its years under Communism and totalitarianism of various stripes and the socioeconomic difficulties it continues to struggle with. There’s so much under the surface that makes up the answer to that question of “who” you belong to, and the book is her thought process, sifting through the layers against the backdrop of the ancient lake.
Even amidst explorations of the brutality in the region’s history, Kassabova retells the myth, folklore, and stories that comprise its cultural fabric, especially as they arise on her travels. Together — the political reality and the filmy layers of folk stories — it creates such an intense portrait of a long-troubled but culturally rich region, and succeeds on levels both national and personal, as she slowly comes to personal revelations about herself and her identity as an individual as well as in connection to her family heritage.
My expectations were slightly too high considering how affected I felt by Border. Near the end of this book the richly poetic tone and writing style I fell in love with in that book suddenly returned. But I think I spent too much time wanting to be wrapped up in it the way I immediately felt with its predecessor, when actually this one had quite a different purpose from the outset. I could imagine rereading To The Lake and taking away something different from it each time.
Where I love this most is when she meditates on something she encounters, turning it over like a stone as she examines what meaning it holds in relation to her undertaking, and Kassabova is capable of taking these moments to near-breathtaking emotional peaks. Like here, when a clock at Skopje central railway station triggers something:
Sometimes, I feel like that clock. It’s an irrational feeling, out of joint with the present: ruins all around, stuck in a long-ago moment of disaster. I knew that this stopped-clock legacy had come down from my mother but I wanted to find out where that came from, and how others carried it. I wanted to know what creates cultural and psychological inheritance, and how we can go forward with it, instead of sleepwalking back into the geopolitical abyss. The abyss is home to the bones of our predecessors who could not escape dark forces. Some of those forces are still with us — they never went away — the better to let us know that the abyss is always open for business.
She also introduces those she meets so colorfully, and weaves their stories, trials and journeys into hers in a way that feels seamless, and ties together greater themes about ancestry and its mysterious power in the Balkans: “Nick had retraced his grandfather’s steps, returning for him, bringing back the errant spirit so that the howl would stop echoing in the ancestral landscape. He looked lonely on that godforsaken road, yet his expression said in no uncertain terms: Here I am. I made it.”
Kassabova has a gift for drawing the profound out of the everyday, for turning casual observation into rich meditation with layers of meaning. Gorgeous writing on a region that’s not the most common focus for a travel narrative, let alone one so psychologically probing yet poetic.
Even if we live behind closed shutters, the darkness that we carry will disappear, making us see, in one last breath, just how we have used this precious life.
To The Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace
by Kapka Kassabova
published August 4, 2020 by Graywolf Press
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.