The European border has emerged as a problematic gateway for refugees fleeing conflicts in the Middle East and Africa. The area finds itself unprepared for an extraordinary volume of human traffic, people desperate and determined to find a better life. Composed of Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey, this borderland witnessed forced religious and linguistic conversions, maniacal national strife, cultural pillage, genocide and the greater impact of the Cold War.
A survivor of the latter political crisis, writer Kapka Kassabova returns to her native Bulgaria. Now in her 40s, having immigrated with her family to New Zealand in 1990, she is haunted by her homeland; “my yearning for the old continent undermined whatever happiness I had.”
With a greater understanding of the dark history of her homeland, she observes, “history is written by the victors, they say, but it seems that history is written above all by those who weren’t there, which may be the same thing.”
Hoping to correct this, Kassabova carefully circles her former home to better understand the land through those who never left and the immigrants who struggle to survive during these unprecedented times.
Rich with a profound sense of the region’s political and cultural history, this travelogue moves at an often meandering pace, its narrative broken up by condensed musings on personal conflict, historical ephemera or folklore.
Recognizing that “oral history is more enduring than the written word,” Kassabova devotes herself to intimate vignettes that sparkle with the dark charm of fairy tales and mystical fables, more powerful than those offered by her well researched interludes. Hosts and drivers, fellow travelers and cynical locals provide a constant hum that reinforces the tension of a territory under constant contest.
This indirect journey answers no specific questions, but it presents an array of evidence through which one may consider why this was such a crucible for horror and displacement. Kassabova is shaken by the experience, remarking, “I had opened some kind of Pandora’s Box in my own psyche. … There was a powerful gravitational pull in these ranges.”
To stay in a borderland is to remain in perpetual limbo. This is not a place that leaves you without a mark. “The border was an equaliser. No one was too exceptional to die a stupid death.”
Kassabova zeros in on the indiscriminate risk embedded in this purgatory that leaves one with very little to lose. For those whose communities were stripped of their heritage, reclaimed it, then lost it again, there is a dangerous fearlessness to their lives.
There is also a keen understanding that nothing is ever finished. There is no such thing as goodbye.
Lauren LeBlanc is an independent book editor and writer, as well as a senior editor at Guernica magazine. A native New Orleanian, she lives in Brooklyn.
Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe
By: Kapka Kassabova.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 379 pages, $16.