‘Some places are inscribed in our DNA yet take a long time to reveal their contours, just as some journeys are etched into the landscape of our lives yet take a lifetime to complete. So it is for me and these lakes.’
To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace
By Kapka Kassabova
Published by Granta Books
With her last book, Border, Kapka Kassabova won the inaugural Highland Book Prize and the 2017 Saltire Book of the Year, and was either shortlisted or won a further half dozen awards. An exploration of the borderlands of the south-east Balkans, it cast new light on a neglected corner of Europe, mixing memoir with a sophisticated study of cultural intermingling.
Her new book, To the Lake, does exactly the same thing – except instead of taking her readers around and across the intersecting frontiers of Greece, Turkey and her native Bulgaria, she takes them around and across the equally neglected borderlands of North Macedonia, Albania and Greece. It is a story that can almost, but not entirely, be told around the shorelines of two lakes – Prespa and Ohrid.
Let me try to explain where they are. When the Romans wanted a fast overland route to Constantinople, they started half-way down the coast of what is now Albania, and marched west through the mountains to Thessalonika. This, the first half of the Via Egnatia, is by far the toughest part, but a third of the way along it, they would at least have the consolation of seeing Lake Ohrid. This is where Kassabova’s maternal ancestors lived, owning orchards and living by its shores right down to her grandmother Anastassia’s time.
This land has been shuffled around between different rulers so frequently that it would be farcical had not whole lakes of blood also been shed in the process: when Bulgaria lost ownership of it in 1944, for example, it was for the fourth time in only 60 years. Even the locals refer to the fast-changing regimes almost as if they were football scores: Serbia 1 (1913-15), for example, or Bulgaria 2 (1941-4). Even when Macedonia finally won its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, it still couldn’t even legally call itself what it wanted to: only a year and a half ago was a compromise finally reached on the name ‘North Macedonia’.
So when Kassabova – born and reared in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital 170 miles to the north-east – goes to Lake Ohrid, it’s a homecoming of sorts. This was where Anastassia was from, where the family went for summer holidays, and where many of them remain. Kassabova left this part of Europe behind a long time ago – first, by emigrating with her family to New Zealand, and then by moving to Scotland, where she settled in 2003 – but even though she never lived and worked there, in a sense this is where her deepest roots lie.
The first time she visited Lake Ohrid by herself was in 1990, four years after her grandmother’s death, when the Kosovo war had just finished. She was by standing by the lake when a retired doctor who had been throwing bread to the swans approached her. ‘Forgive me for asking,’ he said, ‘but whose are you?’ She told him about Anastassia. He had, it turned out, been in love with her grandmother himself, and so had many others, but he’d heard the story: she’d met a Bulgarian cavalry officer and moved to Sofia.
By the time you’ve finished the book, you realise how much more there is to a simple story like that. First of all, the book lives up to its title. The lake her family’s orchards overlooked is indeed beautiful – check it out on Google Images – but it’s more than that. It is, she points out, one of the oldest in the world. Apparently, over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, most of them silt up. But Lake Ohrid, fed by underground streams from the higher, colder and altogether bleaker Lake Prespa, is naturally filtered by porous karst by the time it arrives. This subterranean inter-lake link is, she says, the only one of its kind in Eurasia.
The human contrast to this lacustrine immutability is obvious, and it’s there in the retired doctor’s question: whose are you? Because borders in these parts rise and fall so rapidly and each time they do the consequences can be brutal. Families can be trapped on the wrong side, sometimes never being allowed to meet again. If Anastassia had fallen in love with an Albanian resistance fighter instead, she would have brought up her family under a regime so repressive that even having the temerity to recommend Yugoslav socks over locally-made ones would get you ten years in the slammer.
This is land not only of ever-shifting borders but of complex linguistic and religious interminglings. The graffiti next to the frescos in the church at Zaum, at the south of the lake, are in five languages: Macedonian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Albanian and Greek – evidence, Kassabova suggests, of the Balkans ‘baggy natural cosmopolitanism’. Before the outbreak of the first Balkan War in 1912, there was no shortage of travellers expressing amazement at the relatively peaceful coexistence of Muslims, Christians and Jews.
In fairness, she doesn’t press this point too far, because how can she? From the blinding of 14,000 captured Macedonian soldiers by the victorious Byzantines at the battle of Kleidon in 1014 to the litany of atrocities at the end of the Greek civil war just over the border, historical hatreds have gone too deep to ignore. But she does at least show how the weight of history – not just hatred but love of the land, not just religion but folklore, not just political leaders but ordinary people – shapes individuals, not least members of her own family.
This is the real strength of the book. You don’t turn to it for detailed exegesis of the Macedonian Question – or, come to that, as a tour guide: she’s not all that bothered about telling you precisely where she is or how she got there. Places are never as carefully described as are the emotional impact they make on her, and it’s the same with some of her generalisations about people (‘The Lake women … embodied the generative depth where desire and grief ceaselessly churned’). Sometimes the musings seem overblown (‘It may be that the epic journey of the unborn is already written in the ciphers drawn by winds on the lake, as if by cosmic calligraphers’) and you yearn for a simpler narrative.
Yet if you want to understand a place, you need a book like this. Wikipedia will tell you the bare bones of its past, Google Images what it looks like in the present. You might look at both and even contemplate going there. But even if you did, you’d never return with anything like the depth of understanding that Kassabova has drawn from her travels and conversations around her grandmother’s lake.
To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace by Kapka Kassabova is published by Granta Books, priced £14.99.