CHARLIE CONNELLY on a new book which takes us to a much storied corner of Europe.
Confinement breeds wanderlust. If the current situation is teaching us anything positive it’s how to appreciate freedoms of which we thought practically nothing before, from seeing pasta on the shelves in a supermarket to throwing some clothes into a duffel bag and heading out somewhere new, somewhere different, somewhere exotic.
These days the exotic has expanded its boundaries until they’re practically bumping against the postbox at the end of the street, and while I’ve not quite forgotten how to catch a train I don’t think I’m far off typing that phrase into YouTube’s search box for an instruction video. We’re also perilously close to the point where putting the bins out will have to count as this year’s holiday.
There are no restrictions on the imagination, however. If Covid-19 has turned the nation into a slightly more benign version of an open prison then its fences can be scaled by our inner selves. Books are a straightforward way of wandering psychologically, and right now a good travel book can have us exploring different parts of the world in the company of an erudite and agreeable companion, at least once we’ve got our breath back from our daily Joe Wicks-led national workout.
The best travel writers allow us to accompany them through evocatively-described landscapes and introduce us to fascinating people with stories to tell. Even in lockdown we’re able to feel the sun prickle our skin, taste the rain and be dustily footsore at the end of a day spent expanding our mental horizons without leaving the house.
One of the authors best-equipped to transport us during our enforced shackling to the radiator is Kapka Kassabova, whose new travel memoir has been helping me wander beyond these four walls and the constant sound of hoovering coming from the flat upstairs.
In 2017’s Border Kassabova produced one of the great travel books of modern times. An exploration of the region where Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey collide it was a brilliant evocation of a place few have visited but whose turbulent past has produced a people with stories to tell, stories that are products of the crossover between the region’s history and its human geography.
Border scooped the Edward Stanford Dolman travel book of the year award and was shortlisted for the Baillie-Gifford and Ondaatje prizes for literature, success that was richly deserved but leaving her next book with a very difficult act to follow.
Fortunately To The Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace is a more than worthy successor. It’s similar to Border in many ways, most obviously how it leads us to a part of southern Europe with a turbulent history where arbitrary borders have been placed and shifted over the centuries, where different religions, cultures and nationalities are mixed together to create a people steeped in landscape, myth, history and more often than not a special kind of wisdom.
The lake of the title is actually a pair of vast and ancient lakes, Ohrid and Prespa, the former believed to be up to three million years old.
The lakes are just six miles apart but separated by mountains and man: Lake Ohrid is divided between Albania and North Macedonia, Prespa sees the borders of those countries meet that of Greece. Two wide expanses of water that are impossible to simply cross from one side to the other because of invisible national boundaries.
It’s an intriguing enough premise to start with, but Kassabova’s choice of destination is fired by much more than geography. Like all the best travel writing and like Border before it, this journey is personal. In being drawn back to the region from which her maternal family line emerged and from which it departed Kassabova tells a story that is unshakably hers but also encompasses a much wider story.
‘Geography shapes history – we generally accept this as a fact,’ she writes. ‘But we don’t often explore how families digest big historiogeographies, how these sculpt our inner landscape and how we as individuals continue to influence the course of history in invisible but significant ways – because the local is inseparable from the global. I went to the lakes to seek an understanding of such forces. I knew from my Border journeys that sometimes history’s thoroughfares are disguised as geography’s outposts, the better to fool us that the past is another country.’
Like great travel writers such as Rebecca West, in whose footsteps she treads here, and Jan Morris, Kassabova is immensely skilled in turning fragments into a bigger whole. The people she meets around the lakes tell a range of stories, some sweeping, some little more than vignettes, that come together to create a chronicle of humanity through recondite geography and history.
Kassabova’s grandmother Anastassia – from the Greek for ‘resurrection’ – looms over the text from the start. She moved from Ohrid, the town that shares its name with the lake, to the Bulgarian capital Sofia where she became a journalist and well-known radio broadcaster on the Programme for Bulgarians Abroad. She would dedicate old Bulgarian folk songs to her ‘dear compatriots’ around the world, songs of yearning and displacement that crackled out of the night, a circle of 78rpm shellac sent out into the world to prompt tears in the eyes of emigrés in Europe, the Soviet Union and South America, people who knew they were unlikely to return but wanted to retain the safety of anchorage to the place that made them.
Similarly, Kassabova feels the pull of her grandmother’s spirit drawing her to the region that made her, and Ohrid at its heart. Like her ancestors Kassabova’s life has been defined by migration: she grew up in Bulgaria and after the Iron Curtain was raised forever her family relocated to New Zealand. Now she lives in the highlands of Scotland. Hence when she hears an American accent on a café terrace in a remote village near Prespa and finds a young man from California visiting the place from which his father had left as a young man she knows exactly what drew him back, even for a brief visit.
‘These were the children of the Village of Immigrants,’ she writes. ‘The doctors, architects and economists who had studied abroad in the earlier 20th century had stayed abroad too, and there had never been an economic incentive to return, only an emotional one.’
When she arrives in Ohrid it’s not just an emotional connection she feels, as if drawn to the place by some gossamer genetic thread tied to a rock plunged into the heart of the lake, she notices it immediately in the faces she sees.
‘I was dunked in a genotype soup,’ she writes of the people she passes, their physical features similar enough to hers and her family’s that these strangers could be her cousins. When she talks to some of them it turns out they actually are. Her grandmother is remembered vividly too even though it’s many decades since she left Ohrid. One elderly gentleman turns out to be an old flame, who weeps at the memory of Anastassia’s beauty.
These are people who have seen the wheels of history drive through and over them since the Romans established the Via Egnatia, a 700-mile route from the Adriatic coast to Byzantium that became the definitive route through the mountains.
Since the start of the 20th century there’s been war in the Balkans on average around once every 20 years. Ohrid has in the modern era found itself subject to the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bulgaria again, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria again, Yugoslavia again and most recently Macedonia, now officially North Macedonia after long discussions with Greece, who disputed the nation’s use of the name, finally ended with the treaty signed on the shore of Lake Prespa in the summer of 2018. It’s just the latest development in what Kassabova calls ‘a culture war a thousand years old’ and hence when locals ask her, ‘whose are you?’ in reference to her family, the question has added, wider nuance that thrums through her entire narrative.
She meets her cousin Tino, a jazz promoter, ‘outwardly calm but internally restless’, and visits breathtakingly beautiful mountain chapels with him, crossing borders that seem almost incidental in the timeless historical context of these places of worship. Whichever nation-state lays claim, she still finds the communities defined as much by family and locality as nationality.
‘Tino and I were of different nationalities but we looked so similar we could be siblings,’ she writes. ‘We had known each other since childhood, since before birth through our mothers and grandmothers who carried these mountains and each other until they could carry no more.’
When they return from the trip and Kassabova reads out some of the wishes written on the walls by visitors to a cave church, Tino puts on a John Coltrane album and says, ‘I have a few wishes, but one dream. A world without borders. Cynics will laugh’.
Kassabova answers that cynics don’t dream.
‘They’re scared,’ says Tino, ‘and anyway, when are you coming back?’
It’s this sense of returning, whether in a physical sense through travel or the kind of deep yearning Anastassia would induce in dispersed Bulgarians with her gramophone records that provides the spine for this narrative.
In these human stories, from her own family and from complete strangers of different ethnic and religious backgrounds, the random and relentless antagonism of nation-state borders is shown up to full effect.
Perhaps it’s best to ignore the borders imposed by nation states in favour of the kind of localism described in To The Lake, where relations are defined by history, community and family rather than what piece of ground you happen to be standing on when the political music stops.
Kassabova coins the term Ohridian to describe the setting of her wonderful book, an idea, an infusion, a collection of people forged by memory and lived experience rather than slide rule and dividers.
This is a book that’s one in the eye for the kind of separatists and blinkered nationalists who seized the national discourse and gave us the referendum result of 2016. It’s taken a global pandemic to show us the futility of artificial borders.
When we should be coming together we can see how pathetic divisions have been established and reinforced.
‘Our tragedy,’ writes Kassabova towards the end of her book more presciently than she could have imagined, ‘is fragmentation’.
To The Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace by Kapka Kassabova is published by Granta, price £14.99.