Review: Kapka Kassabova’s “To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace”

by Hannah Denno
kapka kassabova to the lake review

Kapka Kassabova – To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace (Graywolf Press 2020). Paperback, pp 416.

Book review by Hannah Denno.

Kapka Kassabova’s latest book To The Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace is hard to pigeonhole: part travelogue, part family memoir, part history of the southern Balkans, part psychogeographical exploration of the impact of place on behavior and emotions. The author anticipates this by explaining she is writing in the tradition of “historia,” the Greek word originally describing a multidisciplinary examination of a subject. It is only in recent centuries, she explains, that “history” has come to mean a linear narrative of the past, whilst a meandering exploration of a region and the myriad stories of its inhabitants may better represent the way we experience the world.

The travels in question begin with Kassabova’s return to the place where her grandmother, Anastassia, grew up, the town of Ohrid, on the shores of the lake of the same name in southwest Macedonia. Kassabova remembers her grandmother as a dominating, larger than life figure but as a woman who harbored inside her a deep pit of loss and longing that could never be filled. The author sees this melancholic hunger as having been passed down through the generations, first to her mother then to herself, and hopes to better understand and maybe even transform this inheritance by revisiting the spot where it all began.

Lake Ohrid is transected by the borders of three nations, North Macedonia, Albania and Greece. Immediately, this leads Kassabova back to the territory of her previous book, ‘Border’, the arbitrariness and fluidity of lines on the map, the historic grievances caused by these changing divisions, the life of people in these edgelands and the complications of overlapping identities. As she travels in all three countries, though, she writes of a growing sense that the peoples of the lakes (Ohrid and its sister lake, Prespa) are one people.

This conflict between oneness and division is one of the key themes of Kassabova’s book and she writes beautifully on it. The story of the Balkans seems to her a microcosm of the struggle throughout history of these two great global opposing forces. The region has given its name to the term “balkanization,” meaning a breaking up into smaller parts, and has become synonymous with the idea of ethnic nationalism and “ancient hatreds.” Yet, there is much diversity in the Balkans, and different groups, including Christians and Muslims, have lived side by side here for hundreds of years. In Ohrid, Kassabova hears the muezzin’s call to prayer and the ringing of church bells follow one after the other. And at Saint Naum Monastery, where she lets the magnificence of the lake metaphorically wash over her, the tomb of Naum is an equally popular pilgrimage destination for members of both faiths.

Ultimately, Kassabova finds healing, and the answer to the contradictions she is fascinated by, in the enduring stillness of the ancient lake. But the journey to that endpoint can be heavy reading at times. Through conversations with the people she meets, she finds that her inheritance of loss is shared by many and understands it as a fallout of the political upheavals and conflicts that have riven the Balkans in the last century. Women have lost their husbands to war. Children have lost their parents as they have migrated and borders have closed firmly shut behind them. History has been erased and people have lost the right to speak their own language as new nation-states have sought to homogenize. This being so, loss now seems inevitable. “We act out of an inherited belief that we don’t have the right to be at peace,” writes Kassabova.

Kassabova encounters some bleak tales and broken people. Tanas, a tour guide who gives her a boat ride on Lake Ohrid, tells her of growing up in a work camp in Communist Albania where people were so hungry that they hid the bodies of their dead children so they could continue to claim their rations. And Nick, Kassabova’s travelling companion for a portion of her journey, relates the story of his grandfather who had to flee Bulgaria for Australia in the 1940s, leaving behind a wife and two young children. Nick’s grandfather travelled to Yugoslavia in 1987 to finally meet his son who had been given permission to cross the border from Bulgaria. But when the son reached the checkpoint, he was stalled for days, being asked to produce more and more papers. Only when the father had given up hope and boarded a plane back to Australia was the son allowed entry, so that they missed each other by a matter of hours.

The author shepherds us through this suffering with the poetry of her prose. (On the power of the lake to overcome divisions: “The land is riven with the anguish and contradictions of linear roads, but the lake contains multitudes.” On people using ancient stones from the Roman Via Egnatia to build barns: “This is how history looks on the ground—not a parade of great events but a quiet chain of recycling.”) With her knack of meeting interesting people, such as Clemé, the former revengeful paramilitary and wheeler-dealing ladies’ man who has since become the reverent caretaker of the Black Madonna Monastery following a stroke-induced coma when the Black Madonna herself appeared to him in a vision. And with her eye for little nuggets of hope, such as the gravestone she spots in a Greek cemetery that has been written in both Greek and Cyrillic, and has not been defaced despite the Republic’s 70 year long ban on Cyrillic script.

The greatest sources of hope for Kassabova are the lakes themselves, older and bigger than human problems. “All is one,” they tell her. “Our tragedy is fragmentation.” Kassabova’s “historia” makes a convincing case for this.

Kapka Kassabova – To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace (Graywolf Press 2020). Paperback, pp 416.

Book review by Hannah Denno.

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