The Edge of Europe

Border: a Journey to the Edge of Europe, Kapka Kassabova Granta 2017/Greywolf 2017 

Kapka Kassabova’s impulse to travel to the Bulgarian-Turkish-Greek borderland was the desire to visit those locales sites that had the status of forbidden places in her childhood, separating with barbed wire communist Bulgaria from the NATO members, Turkey and Greece. For several decades, those who wanted to reach the other side of the Iron Curtain to a better world tried to climb over this barrier. Apart from Bulgarians, these were mainly citizens of the former GDR who were convinced that the Bulgarian forests would be easier to get across than the Berlin Wall. They were wrong as the south-eastern tip of the Eastern Bloc was guarded extremely closely. Escape attempts were also made by Czechs, Hungarians and Poles visiting the Red Riviera on the pretext of spending their holidays at Black Sea resorts. Almost all the fugitives were targeted by the border troops, and many of them were shot on the spot.

The eponymous border can be seen as the edge of Europe and Asia, but also as a corridor through which a stream of people, goods and ideas flowed for centuries. At the same time, this particular borderland like no other reveals the arbitrary nature of political borders, demonstrating that they are a network imposed on reality in order to organize space and thus gain power over it. The rules of cartography and politics do not satisfy the author of Border, who decides that she will get to know the borderland as intimately as possible. She gives herself time to adjust to the rhythm of life of the inhabitants of the villages and towns, mirroring each other across the border, with these places gradually revealing to her their complex history, a tangle of languages, cultures and painful scars.

Good and Bad Passports

Despite the change in political systems, the “back door to Europe” that Kassabova writes about still remains impenetrable for a great number of people. The corridors used during the Cold War have remained the same, only the direction of movement has changed, and people are still divided into those with good and bad passports. Under communism, the border was supposed to stop the inhabitants from crossing it and escaping, while the current task of the border is to prevent “others” from entering the western world. Those people who risked their lives to enter Europe from the Middle East and their difficult stories, often marked by war and the loss of loved ones, are an important part of this book.

Kassabova visits her protagonists in a temporary border camp, makes friends with a Kurdish family in Svilengrad, Bulgaria, waiting for the decision of the refugee office and meets war fugitives in roadside bars when they try to buy freedom from smugglers or just something to eat. She does not reduce their lives, however, to refugee biographies, but learns about their everyday lives and shows their fate in all its dimensions. She also changes her perspective at times and looks at herself through the eyes of her protagonists, as during her first visits to the Kurdish family. When Alal, the host’s wife, looks at her during the initial greetings, Kassabova wonders where this look can place her in the spectrum of those good-intentioned but incompetent people who want to solve other of the Totalitarian Machine.

Frankensteins of the totalitarian machine

Border is created by people, with the five hundred pages of the book pulsating with life and human stories. The author visits her interlocutors and establishes a close relationship with them, participating in family celebrations and meals.

We get to know the story of the owner of a pub between Bulgaria and Turkey, an Orthodox priest who loves dancing, amateur treasure hunters, smugglers trading in human life and secret agents who, while drinking whisky, complain about too many gypsies in Bulgaria and nostalgically recall the good old days of Todor Zhivkov (the former communist dictator).

She also reaches out to the former functionaries who guarded the border of the Eastern Bloc before 1989. He calls them Frankensteins of the totalitarian machine, because they received nothing for their fanatic devotion to communism and obeying orders, but, on the contrary, lost what is most precious. One of them is a retired border guard, who visits his home just after his wife’s death. The man is all alone, because it turns out that his son, who inherited his father’s profession, was killed in a senseless way at the order of one of the generals, with no one even facing the consequences of this terrible death. By juxtaposing the figures of former beneficiaries and victims of the former regime, Kassabova points out that the new system has not managed to repair all that much in this regard and that it largely reproduces the old divisions.

Under communism, the border was supposed to stop the inhabitants from crossing it and escaping, while the current task of the border is to prevent “others” from entering the western world.

Invisible people whose history nobody particularly wanted to listen to up until now, because they were thrown aside, are probably the most interesting for the author of Border. Since the borderland is also a periphery distant from the centers of power, it is a genuine barometer of social change. We read about life in one of the villages visited by Kassabova that it is full of both charm and pain. The borderland is not only the seductive beauty of nature, but also bumps in the roads, unemployment that drives young people away and the poverty that produces inertia in those who remain.

Resignation and Lack of Hope for a Better Life

Kassabova also writes about the brutal devastation of the Strandja Massif by the Mafia, which exploits the region with the consent of state institutions, carrying out massive deforestation without new plantings, building new cement factories, extracting sand from river beds, irreversibly changing the microclimate there. In this sense, the Strandja turns out to be part of a global phenomenon. Although Western bureaucratization and constraining of human life with new regulations have not reached this area, the exploitation of nature is as greedy as in the West, where the environment is being robbed by profit-seeking corporations.

Born in Bulgaria in the late Zhivkov period, Kassabova emigrated to New Zealand with her family at the age of 19 in 1992. Perhaps it is the experience of living in both political systems that makes the author look at the border so thoroughly and from so many different perspectives, observing the mechanisms of its operations both in space and in the mentality of people. The author also sees how smoothly one political system can turn into another, into its apparent opposite.

Former capitalist Turkey, whose borderland the author visits during her journey, is now a welfare state with a hypocritical paternalistic facade, in which it resembles former communist Bulgaria. Contemporary Bulgaria is, in contrast, in many respects like former capitalist Turkey. The author sees resignation and lack of hope for a better life in the faces of the inhabitants of the Bulgarian borderland, but she adds that you can swim naked with impunity and drink rakija to your heart’s content, which is unthinkable in today’s Turkey.

Testimonies of the Collapse of Grand Visions

Reading Kassabova, I was reminded of Kate Brown’s Dispatches from Distopia: Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten, in which the author, reflecting on the contemporary fascination with ruins, finds common features between the Chernobyl landscape and the cities of the American rust belt. What these spaces have in common is the fact that they are monuments of the collapse of great modernization projects, testimonies of grand visions that were once supposed to change the world for the better, and turned out to be not only impossible, but also disastrous.

The rust veil, on a par with that covering Detroit and Chernobyl today, has a remarkable attractive force, creating a bizarre branch of catastrophic tourism. One of the aims of the people practicing it is to observe the successive stages of the disintegration of matter created by the human hand and to contemplate the process of absorption of human works by nature. Kassabova’s journey does not take place in the footsteps of the graves of progress, but the scenery of this journey is also a reality in which the successive political systems look at each other as if they were looking in their mirror images, revealing their common places, but also the space that disintegrates, reaching its end.

Contemporary times and communism are only one of the layers, however, of this multithreaded story. The world Kassabova writes about is a world inhabited by people and spirits alike. A busy modern Thrace, intersected with trade routes, reveals itself time and again in the myths of Orpheus, born in this land, and in various local legends. The Thracian land turns out to hide secrets that attract generations of treasure hunters. For Kassabova, local beliefs and opinions are a legitimate part of her knowledge of the world, just as important for her as for her protagonists, who, as she writes, have been robbed of everything they had, but at least nobody will take away their own tradition that organizes their lives and gives them a deeper meaning.

The rust veil, on a par with that covering Detroit and Chernobyl today, has a remarkable attractive force, creating a bizarre branch of catastrophic tourism.

Svetlana as a Literary Point of Reference

Kapka Kassabova began her literary career as a poet. In 2008 she published the book Street Without a Name, for which she was nominated for the European Book Award and the William Dolman Award for Best Travel Book. Her next book, Twelve Minutes of Love: A Tango Story was nominated for the Scottish Art Council Award. Issued in 2017, Border received the Nayefa Al-Rohana Award from the British Academy, the Edward Stanford and William Dolman Prizes, the London Highland Society Award and The Highland Times Award, as well as many prestigious nominations.

Kassabova writes her books in English, although English is not her mother tongue. I mention this fact because I admire this fact. Border is written in a beautiful language full of sparkling metaphors. The author distrusts somewhat the language of politics, used in such a way that it has ceased to mean anything, and she seeks linguistic resources for her story in the language of poetry or in the stream of living speech. She manages to recover the meaning of many words, such as the flickering Turkish word memeklet, which in Turkish means homeland, whose definition Kassabov seeks from both poets and the people with whom she talks during her journey.

Although hundreds of characters pass through the book, the author manages to give each of them an individual character, a small life. In one of the interviews, Kapka Kassabova points to the writings of Svetlana Aleksiyevich as one of her literary points of reference. Aleksiyevich’s books, constructed as polyphonies of separate, individualized voices, are the result of a great deal of work consisting of countless conversations, preceded by the creation of a communication situation that will allow them to resonate. Kassabova also uses the polyphonic structure of the story in Border, but un- like Aleksiyevich, she decides to place herself in the polyphony of voices, invoking the Anglo-Saxon tradition of travel prose, which opens the door between fiction and fact, event and metaphor. As a result of the author’s presence as one of the protagonists, the book sometimes gains a very intimate, personal dimension.

The ravishing landscapes of the Stranja, Thrace and the Rhodopes are described in this book in a fascinating, original fashion. The author often strays from the usual geographical routes in order to reach deserted, half-extinct villages, where the roads end and the inhabitants work in the forest or are fugitives from the world of civilization. Reading this book has yet another additional effect: it gives rise to an overwhelming desire to travel.

Sylwia Siedlecka

(born 1980) is a writer and researcher of Bulgarian and Czech culture. She works at the Institute of Western and Southern Slavic Studies at the University of Warsaw. She is the author of a non-fiction book on Bulgaria entitled Złote piachy (2019), a collection of short stories Szczeniaki (2010), a monograph entitled Poganka i intelektualistka: Bohaterki Błagi Dimitrowej (2012) and co-editor of the collection Zmiana ram: Instytucje po 1989 roku w Europie Środkowo-Wschodniej i na Bałkanach (2019).

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