Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe
The border between Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece is fraught with tension, history, and mystery. I knew nothing about this region of the world, and even less about the histories of the three countries during the Cold War. Kapka Kassabova's stunning travel book tells the stories of the villagers that live on this triple border, of the refugees trying to flee west, of the treasure hunters and smugglers.... Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe is nothing short of remarkable. Kassabova seamlessly interweaves ancient history with her adventures. For example, when she's staying in a place she calls "the Village in the Valley," she writes: "There were four of us. I felt like the surplus harpy. In local folklore, the daemons called orisnitsi (from oris, fate) are always three women: young, middle-aged, and old...." (109)
She tells of her childhood in Sofia, Bulgaria, but her personal history is not the focus of the book: the stories all hinge on the concept of "border," on what is lost, on the spaces at the edges. She writes about the corridors between Asia and Europe, used by the Kurdish rebels, refugees, and fugitives alike. Her writing is so evocative that you conjure up the village she describes, like in a chapter entitled "The Village Where You Lived Forever":
The village was at the end of a mountain road so long that it surely had to end with each next village huddled in the secretive hills, but didn't. Big woolly sheepdogs called Karakachan, after nomadic Greek shepherds who bred them, ran alongside the car like shagpile carpets on long legs. Labyrinthine passages carved out cathedrals and entire cities inside the cliffs... (222)
There was something quasi-magical and mystical about her adventures. You feared for Kassabova's safety (but in the back of your mind knew that she would make it out OK because she wrote the book, after all). My favorite description of the book reads: "Border is a scintillating, immersive travel narrative that is also a shadow history of the Cold War, a sideways look at the migration crisis troubling Europe, and a deep, witchy descent into interior and exterior geographies."
Kassabova relied primarily on oral histories and chance encounters. This gave her book a richness of characters and narratives. In an interview with The Paris Review, Kassabova says of the people in the book define themselves by what they love:
But because so many of these border places have been depopulated through the sheer brutality of politics, economics communities are precious. People long to have others there, like the shepherd and his wife who are the last people in their village, they long to have at least one other family there. That would be a community to them. Just one other family, one other house with the windows lit up at night, would be enough.
One elderly Bulgarian man Kassabova meets tells her: "The secret is to have three hearts. One for loving people. Another for loving yourself. And the third one, to love the mountains" (233). This book is a testament to the people who love the mountains at the edge of Europe. Rating: ★★★★★