To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace, the latest work by Bulgarian-New Zealander author Kapka Kassabova, is a rich account of Ohrid and Prespa, two lakes in the Southern Balkans that are now divided between North Macedonia, Albania and Greece.
In this little-visited but fascinating region, the homeland of Kassabova’s maternal grandmother, the tides of history have washed over often, mostly with such terrible consequences that even the youth trust nature over history: this environment may be mutable and potentially hostile, but it is knowable – far better than the whims of greedy men.
The lakes “contain multitudes” – lush orchards and weapons, beauty and bloody ancestral laws, sacred icons and freak accidents. So too its peoples flow and absorb one another, striking new balances over time and giving rise to a unique identity in the process. Variations of the refrain “we are lake people” resounds often throughout the book, a plea against the myriad fratricidal divisions imposed over the centuries on people who just want to live their lives.
Today, division takes the form of nation-States’ borders. Kassabova essentially explodes the increasingly popular myth of national borders as “given” and eternal certifiers of demographic uniformity. Far from it: in her hands, borders are mutable, arbitrary creatures. Still, whether they arise due to chance military outcome or late-night napkin politicians’ scribbles, their consequences are no less senseless – maybe even more tragic, especially in a peninsula that “had long housed a polyphonic, sometimes cacophonous, diversity”.
This dismantling takes place in a deceptively simple way: telling the stories of the people who live in the borderlands, ably drawing out the essence of their humanity in her tender, powerful prose. The waiters who write poetry. The businessman who made a fortune abroad but is compelled to return because he was looking for a part of himself that he could only find by the lake. The peaceful, all-seeing guardian of a monastery. These are stories of war and loss, but also peace, miracles and redemption, although the latter often comes at the cost of migration or exile – yet another form of division and trauma.
Kassabova also explored the topic of the interplay between history, nature and humanity in Border: A Journey to the End of Europe, the 2017 chronicles of her travels in the mountainous region between Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. In that work, the absurdity of national boundaries is revealed by opposing them to the mammoth barriers built by nature; in To the Lake, this is achieved by the fact that the borders are fixed over water, the fluid element by definition. To the Lake also deepens another perspective, as another reason for Kassabova’s journey is to understand the lake’s people and therefore her ancestors: the link between outside barriers and the walls we build inside, how they bolster and amplify each other. However, she shows, precisely this link means that we can break the cycle and avoid becoming “unwitting agents of destruction”, if only we heal the rifts within us.
To the Lake is a beautifully crafted labour of love dedicated to a timeless land, and it was a true joy to savour its many facets. And at a time when barriers and divisions of all sorts are unfortunately regaining currency, it reminds us that by knowing the Other, simply by hearing their stories, we can recover the unity between us. While this may be hidden, it runs nonetheless, like the underground rivers between Ohrid and Prespa. Because the “world, when left alone, is one”.