Thursday, August 31, 2017

Review of ‘Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe’ by Kapka Kassabova

The Strandja is a mountainous border zone between Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece. Also spelled Strandzha, the area is a nature reserve blessed with biodiversity, a region rich with history, and a land filled with mystery. The Strandja is also the backdoor of Europe, a centuries-old passageway that today constitutes an escape route for refugees fleeing the Middle East.

It is into this border zone that author Kapka Kassabova sets off on a quest, a quest to “look into the faces of those who are there, hear their stories, eat with them, learn new words.” For Kassabova, who grew up in Bulgaria during the 1970s and 1980s, the Strandja had been off limits; the border running through it was the division between the Communist east and the free world. As such, it was an area filled with gun-happy troops and fugitives. In her new home in Scotland, Kassabova developed a hunger to see the Strandja, and to understand this border that runs between three countries.

“The tug of the border was powerful among the river dragonflies, like a gravitational force. Whichever way you turned, something was behind you and nothing ahead of you. Perhaps that’s what history is.”

Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova (Granta Books, February 2017) is part travel memoir and part a cultural exploration of a border region “where they do things differently.” In the Strandja, fire-walkers celebrate pagan holidays by dancing on fiery coals while carrying religious icons in their hands.

People are always on the move in the Strandja, even those who have made the mountain their home. Entire populations have been forced by ruling powers to cross from one country to the next, to live in villages abandoned by those going in the opposite direction. “This border takes a toll on people,” the author writes, especially on those who travel in hopes of a better life. “People die crossing borders, and sometimes just being near them. The lucky ones are reborn on the other side.”

In the Strandja you encounter rusting army bases, phantom villages, lonely lighthouse keepers, legends and myths. The Strandja is “a spiritual mountain. Somethings you can’t explain, and maybe just as well.” As Kassabova writes, “It’s not for everyone.”

Kassabova’s writing is eloquent and lyrical; she captivates her readers with vivid descriptions of the Strandja’s magic. Through her eyes we see the picturesque countryside but more than that, we meet the fascinating people who make the Strandja their home. People on the move. Transient residents who have lost their villages, their sons, their daughters, their husbands and wives. Through their stories we learn that deep down the people are all the same. But, can the Strandja really be their home?

“I could almost touch it next to me at the table, the humanless, ancient silence of Strandja. In the moonlight, the bulk of the nearby hills loomed as alien as ever, and I couldn’t help but feel that somehow, we shouldn’t be here at all, that no human truly belonged to starry Strandja, that we were all just passing through on our way elsewhere.”

By reading Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, I have passed through the Strandja. And the region fascinates me now more than ever.

Kapka Kassabova was born and raised in Bulgaria. Her family emigrated to New Zealand just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, where she published two poetry collections and Reconnaissance, winner of the 2000 Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book in South-East Asia and Pacific region. Since 2004, she has lived in the Scottish Highlands. Her memoir, Street Without a Name (Portobello, 2008), is a story of 'the last Communist childhood and an unsentimental journey across post-communist Bulgaria'. The book was short-listed for the Prix Européen du Livre and the Dolman Travel Book Award.

Buy Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe and read it now!

Related article:

‘Street Without A Name’ by Kapka Kassabova, a Review

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