Lake Ohrid: an oasis of peace in the war-torn Balkans

15 February 2020

9:00 AM

15 February 2020

9:00 AM

To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace Kapka Kassabova

Granta, pp.400, £14.9

Kapka Kassabova’s previous travel book, Border, was rightly acclaimed and won several prizes. The author travelled to the edge of Europe, between Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey, and teased out ‘where something like Europe begins and something else ends, which isn’t quite Asia’.

This is a sequel of sorts. She now travels to another border, that between Macedonia, Albania and Greece, where the vast and beautiful Lake Ohrid remains one of the Balkans’ surviving religious melting pots, despite considerable nationalist pressure. It is where her mother was originally from, so her journey is partly a rediscovery of her own roots.

Kassabova feels as though she came from a family pattern of absent men and the women they left behind — ‘we are epigenetically determined to wander’. She herself has taken a very unusual route, emigrating with her parents from Bulgaria to New Zealand, but then leaving that country as an adult to live in the highlands of Scotland. She is fascinated, and sometimes worried, by the way family patterns repeat themselves and how we can be destined to live out patterns of restraint and self-denial. When she goes back to the lake, she is met with the constant and loaded refrain, ‘Whose are you?’ — as in which family do you come from? — and she is astute at recognising the claustrophobia of a homecoming as well as its pleasures.

She quotes Jorge Luis Borges’s wonderful story ‘The South’, in which a Buenos Aires man, who fantasises about the romantic allure of the Argentinian south, is then brought face to face with its grubby realities and dies in a gaucho knife fight. Kassabova is likewise all too aware of her romantic longing for the lake — how it ‘runs in my veins, its salty sweet blood pumps from my heart’ — but that it is a place also riddled with oppression and unfulfilled potential: why so many of the Balkans’ thinkers and revolutionaries looked to the West with hope, before they died young.

This is in part an elegy to the many poets who were writing at a time, when ‘publishing in a language or identity other than the prescribed one landed you with exile or death’. And anyone who thinks of the Albanian communist regime as a joke should read Kassabova’s sobering interview with Tanas Spassé, who now works as a boatman on the lake. His family was torn apart with vicious intent and he was brought up in a series of prison camps where the children had to eat worms; at one camp the inmates staged a revolt and were each given a further sentence of 1,700 years. Kassabova repeats this in the text just to show that it isn’t a misprint: one thousand and seven hundred years each.

She also tells the story of St Petka, the patron saint of one of the many monasteries high up on the rocks around the lake; a saint who, like our own St George, had been imported from the Middle East, where she lived a life of ascetic silence in the face of terrible events around her. In some ways she is emblematic of what Kassabova attempts to bring out throughout this book: the quiet lives that get hidden by history — and as she reminds us, Churchill said that the Balkans produce far more history than they can consume.

But the book is not entirely successful. It seems to have lost something of the immediacy and energy of its predecessor. In the same way that memoirs can get dull if they begin with long family trees, so travel writers shouldn’t spend too much time telling us why they are thinking of going on a journey before they actually embark on it. This book runs the risk of falling into both traps.

Whereas Border plunged us precipitately into the excitement of the Thracian mountains — it began at a clifftop called the Judgement, from which bodies had been dropped ‘into the chasm of time’ from classical times to the Cold War — this new one seems to take ages to get going and never quite takes off. Nor do we meet any of the large cast of characters, alive or dead, long enough to get to know them; and for what is billed as a personal journey, Kassabova is curiously reticent about revealing much about herself.

But she is too good a writer not to allow us many individual pleasures along the way. Nor is she afraid to speculate on the psychology of place. She reminds us that water is a symbol of the unconscious — so that it is natural for the lake to be full of dreams and memories for her. And any writer who uses the marvellous word ‘lacustrine’ — ‘of the lake’ — deserves to be celebrated.

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