People forget that we are only guests on this earth, that we come on to it naked and depart with empty hands.
This is a wonderful book: magical, heart-breaking, ominous. Kapka Kassabova, who grew up behind the Iron Curtain in Bulgaria, goes back to see what life is like now in the border zone that was once a no-man’s land separating the Eastern Bloc from Greece and Turkey. It’s wild mountain country that gets into the blood. Centuries of the dispossessed and persecuted have settled there, by force or choice, driven this way and that by militant nationalism and the clash of religions. Border is a brilliant weaving-together of ancient and modern history, Homer, Herodotus and Ovid rubbing shoulders with Stalin and Ataturk, and it opened a new world for me. This charming hand-drawn map gives a good idea of the mixture of the mixture of history, mythology and the human element in the book:
Like all the best travel writers, Kassabova knows how to set herself down and let the locals reveal the place to her. Travelling alone, she takes a lot of risks in places where a young woman is “either a wife-mother or a whore”. She meets all kinds of wanderers, thugs, psychics, everyday saints and mystics, spies and smugglers, and enters into the “collective heartbreak” of the common man in lonely villages that modern life has left behind. She experiences the ancient power and energy of the forests and mountains and has to fight their hold on her:
You’ll keep returning even if you don’t know why.
Kassabova left Bulgaria at the age of 12, thirty years ago, but it’s still her homeland. “Homeland” is the theme that runs through the book. Forced migration over hundreds of years and political ideology in our own times have torn the idea apart. These days the travellers are refugees from Iraq, Syria and Kurdistan trying to make it into Greece and on to the west, carrying the memories of their own ruined homeland and the hopes of families left behind. She gets to know them in Ali’s Café in Turkey where they meet the smugglers who promise to get them over the border, and often dump them far short of it. If you ever needed a book to bring home to you the reasons why ordinary people flee their homeland and take such enormous risks to find another country that will accept them, you hear it here, in their own voices.
Kassabova has been a great find for me. Next I’ll be reading Twelve Minutes of Love: A Tango Story, which The Independent describes as ‘An exquisitely crafted blending of travelogue, memoir, dance history and some seriously good writing on the human condition, it delves deep into the obsessive nature of tango and vividly depicts a world full of beauty and heartbreak, love and loss.’