Referring to an interview from the Scottish Review of Books, February 2018., we were advised that Kapka Kasssabova and her family emigrated to New Zealand after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She studied French at university, and began to make a name for herself as a poet and novelist. Some of her early poetry can be found in a collection entitled “Someone Else’s Life” (2003), which deals with people who live on the margins of society, the forgotten and dispossessed. This is clearly a major theme in the current book. After brief spells in Berlin and Marseilles, she settled in Scotland when she was thirty years old. She continued to work in different literary forms.
Talking of this month’s book, set on the borders between Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece, Kassabova said “The trauma of half a century of social life based on lies is going to take several generations to heal, if it heals at all. That’s why I had such a sense of urgency when writing Border. There were so many voices and truths that are untold and unrecorded. I wanted to let those voices speak. But, also, because I see where things are heading politically in the Balkans. For the first time since the 1930s a far-right government is in power in Bulgaria, which is – again – censoring the media, censoring public discourse. The border has become a taboo subject again. Some of the places I visited in the book are now out of reach.’ ‘Everything that I was discovering felt exciting, like some of the folk motifs. For instance, I had never witnessed fire-worship before. The way people spoke was a challenge, in terms of how to render it into English without losing the authenticity. The source languages were Bulgarian, Turkish and Greek, with dialect variations. That’s why I ended up using some of the regional words, because they are a sensory part of the story of the landscape.”
At our meeting, the book encouraged a wide debate among the six members present. The title “Border” was used in two ways: as a crossing and on the periphery . We thought that she had visited the area three times to compile her “stories” about the movement of peoples since 2000 BC backwards and forwards. In her lifetime the flow of people had reversed from the Iron Curtain blocking southerly passage to the current strong Turkish border blocking the Syrians northerly trek.
It was largely felt that the book was well written although some unusual words in the early part of the book made it hard work – thankfully the language became simpler – had she been trying to impress? One person was irritated by the use of “he said”, “she said”, “he said” in a short passage but it was pointed out that this may have been an attempt at rhyme which had been successful on page 192. She had also interspersed some short chapters to highlight issues and themes – not unlike Steinbeck the month before.
Her story unfolded through dialogues which were largely believable (did she make any up?) and were short and well controlled. The people interviewed were quirky (because only they remained in such a depopulated area?) and varied greatly from simple, friendly individuals to mystics and several rascals as well as bad people e.g. some border guards and smugglers. She was lucky to meet these people as they were dying out.
As ever in country areas, you found great acts of kindness and hospitality but also great selfishness and cruelty. On page 331 she becomes very romantic, idealising an old couple – “The true spirit of the Balkans that hangs on, no matter how renamed and resettled, imagined and invented. Our bitter beloved borderless Balkans”. Is this why she returned?
She used colour – Black Sea, Red Resort, White Wind etc – to display this simple world and her scenic descriptions were good, a list of pen pics but some felt that photos would have enhanced the book. It would have been interesting if we had compared mental pictures of the characters!
The many topics touched upon included mythology, historical names (Thrace means Europe), peoples (the Romas were detested apart from their music!), agriculture (tobacco and sheep were very important), politics (Bulgaria right wing again), religion (the Ottoman’s tolerated Christianity), mysticism, consumption (Raki/Rakia and sweet Ottoman Baclava etc) and the shifting zone between East and West, North and South, Europe and Not-Europe, NATO and the Warsaw Pact, Christianity and Islam, Balkan and Mediterranean, made it very interesting.
Her views are balanced, not taking sides apart from being anti Communist, but the book is difficult to categorise. It has been described as a travel book but her route is untraceable. Someone related it to some of Scott’s novels with his myth and ritual in our borders. Anthropology is a possibility but it is more about herself. Maybe, we could just leave it as the journey of a poetic journalist making friends in an area which is part of her.
To conclude, all found it an engaging and enjoyable book of its time but unlikely to become a “classic”