bookish posts reviews

Border by Kapka Kassabova

In Border, Kapka Kassabova returns to Bulgaria, where she grew up, hoping to explore the border region where Bulgaria meets Greece and Turkey. Partly driven by the desire to flout the old Soviet restrictions, partly by the wealth of folklore and myth there, she finds a land that is strange and beautiful, full of ancient secrets and modern tragedies.

I must have heard about Border somewhere, because I don’t usually just find non-fiction books. But I don’t know where it could have been. I’m sure I was intrigued by the mention of Bulgaria–I’m part of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, after all–and the premise of Kassabova’s travels. Borders and liminal spaces are fascinating to me in fiction, so why not here as well?

Kassabova’s prose is astounding here; the descriptions of not just the landscape but the emotion behind it are entrancing. Much of what the book revolves around are the ways the specifics of these lands come to inhabit the people who live there, and the trauma that happens when political motivations force populations to leave the place they are so deeply connected to. And so it makes sense that the land itself is a force, that some of the best writing in this book is about the landscape she encounters, both natural and manmade.

There is a personal aspect to the story she tells, but the portrait of herself are always a bit cagey. It’s not that I don’t believe what she writes, but rather that she invites ambiguity and uncertainty. This isn’t exactly a memoir, because the people she encounters and the places they encounter each other are both given more weight than herself, except for a few moments here and there. 

The stories those people tell are sometimes funny, sometimes terrifying, but most often they are sad. This is a book full of sad things and yet there’s also a sense of celebration to it. A commitment that even if this way of life is dying out after all these thousands of years, we can take a moment to remember and savor it. Both Kassabova and her friends talk a lot about surviving in the face of adverse political powers, in a way that is obviously relevant to our political age but did not feel too on-the-nose. While she doesn’t forget the overall movements of the major players, this is history focused on the personal level and the effects the national and international decisions have on individuals.

I loved a lot of the book, not only the prose, but the sense of age. Of time going on and on, and of the depth of history and belief. I didn’t always agree with the stances here, particularly her opinion of the Orthodox Church, but it remained a very emotionally effective book for me. Perhaps this is because of how the mythology and the folklore of the places are treated; each section is prefaced with a brief explanation of an aspect of history or folklore that will be expanded on in the following pages in a more personal and lived way. In some ways it felt like a fantasy novel–or maybe it’s just that at imes the feeling reminded me quite a bit of The Winged Histories

There’s a lot here, between history, the stories of people she meets, and the way their stories interact with the story of peoples and nations in the 21st century. This is not a book that’s researched so much as felt and lived, but it’s also erudite and I wasn’t surprised that the back contains a list of scholarly resources. And she keeps the focus clear by following the path of her travels, circling through the ancient forest called Strandja, circling the border. 

All in all, this was not quite like any book I’ve ever read, and it will stay with me for a long time. If you are interested in Eastern Europe, or in liminal places, in the forces of landscape or history, I recommend it.

Background reading: an interview with Kapka Kassabova

By Maureen LaFerney

My name is Maureen. I currently work as a library assistant in a public library in the Indianapolis area, and also just so happen to be a voracious reader. I frequently end up under a cat.

4 replies on “Border by Kapka Kassabova”

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