Travel/mem­oir/his­tory Border

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

Kapka Kass­abova (Granta, £14.99)

IN 2006, I crossed from Bul­garia to Greece through a brand-new fron­tier post, its sur­veil­lance equip­ment still wrapped in plas­tic. It marked the soften­ing of bor­ders as Bul­garia pre­pared to join the EU. The Iron Cur­tain’s anti-tank de­fences were still vis­i­ble in the scrubby no-man’s land. So re­mote and for­got­ten was this cor­ner of Thrace that, as I en­tered Greece, two huge dogs crossed the road and I re­alised they were wolves.

This stretch of border, where Bul­garia abuts Greece and Turkey, is the sub­ject of this timely and mov­ing book. Na­tional bor­ders were es­tab­lished af­ter the Balkan Wars and the demise of the Ot­toman Em­pire, when mil­lions of peo­ple were ex­changed and forced to be­gin new lives in new ter­ri­to­ries. Soon, that border be­came a bar­ri­cade, im­pris­on­ing not just a na­tion, but the en­tire East­ern Bloc. Now, the bar­ri­cade is be­ing re-erected against the lat­est mi­gra­tory swathe.

The au­thor meets in­di­vid­u­als who tried, and mostly failed, to get out and oth­ers now try­ing des- per­ately to get in. She also ex­plores eth­ni­cally com­plex com­mu­ni­ties in­hab­it­ing its fringes, which were closed off for gen­er­a­tions.

In the 1970s and 1980s, san­dal­wear­ing East Ger­mans chose this exit route be­cause it was sup­pos­edly less rig­or­ously pa­trolled than their own, but they were usu­ally be­trayed by Bul­gar­ian shep­herds. They spent years in gaol, if they were lucky, and were shot or beaten to death if not. One mis­tak­enly thought he had made it to Greece and was spot­ted rest­ing in a meadow peel­ing a cel­e­bra­tory ap­ple—he died in hos­pi­tal. The Bul­gar­ian bar­racks com­man­der showed off the young man’s knife as a tro­phy—the au­thor meets the guilty shep­herd’s son. She at­tempts to dis­en­tan­gle these sto­ries, but they are a typ­i­cally Balkan web of lies, in­trigue, in­ten­sity, self-pity and self­de­fence, which makes them all the more com­pelling.

A Bul­gar­ian liv­ing in Scot­land, Kapka Kass­abova hol­i­dayed on this border as a child. Al­though her up­bring­ing in Sofia was rel­a­tively priv­i­leged, she shared the sense of en­trap­ment—hav­ing em­i­grated to the West, she em­pathises with those lured to fol­low. In a won­der­fully told episode, she is es­corted over the Bul­gar­ian fron­tier by a peo­ple-smuggler, a Po­mack called Ziko, only to be trapped for days in a smoke-filled den in Greece with Ziko and his boozed-up pal, a cou­ple of small-time crooks. She is free to leave, but im­pris­oned by her con­fu­sion, her lack of Greek and her po­lite­ness.

She ex­plores other lim­i­nal spa­ces: the in­ter­face between re­al­ity and magic in the fire­walk­ing ri­tu­als of the Strandja Moun­tains, her pan­icked des­cent into some­where between san­ity and mad­ness when she even­tu­ally flees from Ziko down the Rhodope moun­tains—near where I saw the wolves—be­fore he might or might not sell her on the black mar­ket.

Her writ­ing pow­er­fully weaves his­tory, folk­lore, re­portage and per­sonal re­flec­tions. She can be lazy—beau­ti­ful places are ‘stun­ning’, the con­quer­ing Ot­tomans ‘rocked up’ and the way she de­rides Bri­tish in­volve­ment in Greece dur­ing the Sec­ond World War and the sub­se­quent civil war feels glib. (For more nu­anced in­sights, read An Af­fair of the Heart by Dilys Pow­ell.)

That aside, Border is il­lu­mi­nat­ing, pas­sion­ate and some­times funny. It bril­liantly ven­tril­o­quises the voices of this mys­te­ri­ous, plun­dered part of Europe, re­veal­ing the ironies of na­tion­al­ism and the pro­found way in which eth­nic­ity and dis­place­ment can af­fect the hu­man psy­che.

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