BORDER: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, by Kapka Kassabova. Graywolf, 379 pp., $16 paper.
At a moment when most of the news from southeastern Europe concerns the flood of refugees from the Middle East, the Bulgarian-born, Scotland-based poet Kapka Kassabova traveled to the region to explore the legacy of earlier upheavals there. In “Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe” — a chronicle of the towns and villages where Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece overlap — she begins by plunking herself down at a cafe table at the edge of the ancient forest known as Strandja.
During the Cold War, Kassabova writes, the Strandja was “Europe’s southernmost Iron Curtain, a forested Berlin Wall darkened by the armies of three countries.” But the region around it was also the site of enormous suffering during and after Ottoman rule, when Christians and Muslims from the Rhodope Mountains all the way to the Black Sea were ejected, resettled, swapped back and forth by rulers, reconverted and altogether traumatized. “Border” is the story of the land itself and its cultural myths, the people who remain there and those just arriving.
Kassabova’s sense of adventure and spontaneity, combined with a lack of artifice (she spends ample time sitting on balconies confessing that she doesn’t want to do a thing) are winning qualities in a narrator. But the flip side of this lack of artifice is a lack of structure. Although the book is divided into some sixty micro-chapters, it lacks a deeper sense of organization and pacing. Too often, Kassabova piles up anecdotes without signaling their significance; at the same time, her historical explanations are full of dry humor but cluttered and confusing. Hundreds of characters appear and disappear.
Some of the confusion is an understandable hazard of writing about a region about which many readers are uninformed. Some of it is a matter of taste: there are hints that Kassabova’s style is an intentional rejection of the standard tricks of narrative nonfiction. In its more successful moments, it recalls an earlier, less mediated type of travel narrative, like that of Patrick Leigh Fermor, whom Kassabova quotes in an epigraph.
The book’s most affecting scenes involve Middle Eastern refugees. Their stories seem to release Kassabova to express a capacious sense of loss. In Svilengrad, Bulgaria, she meets an Iraqi Kurdish refugee family with three teenage daughters. “I looked at the skinny girls next to me and felt everything with them: the humiliation, the injustice . . . of having to hate where you come from but having nothing new to love.” That family’s asylum case has been taken on by a local lawyer whose own great-grandparents were refugees from the Balkan Wars. Of the lawyer’s ancestors, Kassabova writes, “They had arrived robbed of their possessions by road brigands and moved with nothing into one of the big houses of this neighborhood. The big houses vacated by Muslims fleeing to Turkey.” These kinds of back stories — tiny kaleidoscopic views on the pasts of even the most incidental characters — are a central theme.
Kassabova’s gifts as a poet shine when she describes the mystical, powerful landscape, the book’s true protagonist. Of the roadside fountains dotting the journey, she writes, they are “hospitality without a host.” As for the roads themselves, they are “so potholed, you had to lie in a dark room after each car ride.” Although the map and the timeline of her travels are a struggle to keep straight, we are left with a clear emotional and sensory imprint of the Balkan borderlands. Perhaps for a region whose history is so slippery and whose inhabitants are constantly shifting, this is itself a solid achievement.