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Balkan polyphony

Books | The region that gave the world the word “balkanised” proves a fascinating setting for a travel book with a difference

Sara Dowse 16 April 2021

Sinewy prose: writer Kapka Kassabova. Basso Cannarsa/Opale/Alamy

To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace
By Kapka Kassabova | Granta | $34.99 | 382 pages


You can take it as given that the simplest things in life can also be the most complex. What is home? What makes a nationality? What is a map? What, for that matter, is a soul?

Take Kapka Kassabova, the author of a fine new book, To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace. A poet, novelist and memoirist of a very particular kind, born in Bulgaria of Macedonian parents, she spent her childhood under communist rule, migrated to New Zealand in her twenties and now lives in Scotland. This book, her fourth, was written in English, though it might have appeared in Bulgarian, Greek, Albanian, or any number of Macedonian dialects seemingly at her command.

The lake, Lake Ohrid of the title, is one of two lakes that straddle the borders of Albania, Greece and what is now North Macedonia, so called to distinguish it from the Greek region of Macedonia, after Greece complained about Macedonians taking the name, and thus a chunk of its glory, for their own. Alexander the Great, remember, like his father Philip before him, was from Macedonia, and established a Hellenic empire.

Adding the “North” was just one of the readjustments entailed in the break-up of Tito’s communist Yugoslavia, and was certainly the most benign. The horrific border disputes between Bosnians and Serbs in Kosovo are inscribed in recent memory. But the entire region, what we know as the Balkans, or the Balkan Peninsula, has been haunted by the wars of remoter pasts.

To the Lake is as rich and layered as the history it imparts. It’s a fascinating and stunningly written mix of travelogue, family history, geography, geology, economics, psychology and international politics, enlivened by the many moving stories of people Kassabova meets in her journey. The result is both a totally absorbing tale and a lot to take in.

A unifying order, however, centres on the mesmeric pull of the twin lakes, Ohrid and Prespa, high in the mountains in this little-known corner of Europe. The Balkans of Kassabova’s narrative, named for the mountains in Bulgaria but often conflated with the former Yugo-slavia, consist of Albania, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Greece and Bulgaria. This is a little-understood and much-maligned region, its very name conjuring a wild, broken place, resistant to stability or civilising.

Indeed, “balkanised” has come to signify any area beset with murderous vendettas and partitions. And yet, under the Ottomans, the region’s peoples lived in relative harmony. “Contrary to the lazy and inaccurate stereotype of ‘ancient hatreds,’” Kassabova writes, “the peninsula had long housed a polyphonic, sometimes cacophonous, diversity. It still does.”

It’s a measure of my ignorance that I hadn’t realised just how mountainous the region is, or how that topography, along with its complicated history, might influence the character of its people, and particularly its women, who are depicted as being exceptionally strong yet hollowed out by the wars and poverty they lived through. The calamities of the past hundred years triggered what might be called a serial migration of the women in Kassabova’s family, moving from country to country in an effort to cope. The collapse of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires and the later dissolution of the Soviet Union all left their imprints too.


In Street Without a Name, her first book, and the one that established her reputation, Kassabova recorded a childhood in communist Bulgaria, and the adjustments that came after the Soviet grip on that country was no more. The sufferings in her family are difficult to quantify, and it’s hard to say who suffered most — the men who’d been conscripted, imprisoned or killed, or the women who endured their long absences, and sometimes permanent damage if they were reunited.

Kassabova’s grandmother Anastassia, who played a significant role in raising her, is a case in point. As portrayed here, she was a resourceful, stylish, spirited woman, but psychologically rigid. “Perfection or death,” the motto she used against life’s vicissitudes and implanted in her granddaughter’s psyche, was the legacy of her own antecedents. In one period of dire privation recounted by her grandmother, the women and children sat each night at a dinner table set with the family’s finest china, but had no food to put on it.

A lake, any lake — as those like me with an interest in analytic psychology will recognise — is a symbol reverberant with meaning. In this context a lake is said to represent the female, most particularly the female psyche. Which could help explain the enormous psychic energy Kassabova brings to this project, her need to explore the landscape of her ancestry to better plumb her own depths.

As the work of a worldly writer, though, To the Lake isn’t limited to personal or family experience, but draws on the wealth of Balkan literature, written and oral, and that of other cultures as well. The book opens with a quote from Thoreau, and is sprinkled with the insights of poets, novelists and other observers that further illuminate and deepen the narrative. Along the way we are briefly introduced to writers such as Konstantin Miladinov, Edith Durham, Zhivko Chingo, Nikola Madzirov, Geo Milev, Lasgush Poradeci, Ismail Kadare and Stratis Haviaras. It’s also surprising to encounter those, like Edward Lear and Rebecca West, whom I would never have expected to find in such a setting.

But it’s the people, the living ones, that Kassabova meets along her journey who carry the weight of the narrative. Every one of them has a story, a perspective, a stoic acceptance that enriches her understanding and, needless to say, the reader’s as well. It would be impossible, indeed pointless, to attempt to relate them all. So I’ll settle on Nick, a cousin, whom Kassabova catches up with on the last leg of her journey, on the shores of Ohrid’s twin, Lake Prespa. A youngish gay man of warmth and exuberance, with “an unerring magpie’s eye for the telling detail,” his interest in the Soviet period and his competence in several languages (five Slavic ones, Spanish, Greek, Romanian, Mandarin and Hebrew) had his friends repeatedly asking if he wasn’t, after all, a spy.

After such an introduction it comes as something of a shock to learn that Nick grew up in Adelaide. He was one of the detsa begalci, the child victims and survivors of the bitter Greek civil war, and through a complicated set of circumstances had been rescued and raised by relatives in Australia. The mind spins trying to grasp his experiences, which encapsulate those of so many from this region. The wonder of it is that so many do go back, as visitors or to stay.

To the Lake, as you may have gathered, is an amazing book. To help us navigate, the author has furnished it with two maps and a glossary. Even so, I found I needed to consult other maps in my now out-of-date atlas. The two lakes are not only the oldest in Europe, they are skirted by the Via Egnatia, the old Roman road connecting the Bosphorus with the Adriatic. It is a landscape of remarkable beauty, replicated in the sinewy yet delicate prose Kassabova uses to describe it. The reflections of mountain peaks in the depths of lake waters, their colours with the changing light, the roll of vegetation through the seasons — all this and more are vividly captured.

“Seen from above,” Kassabova writes, “Ohrid and Prespa are a topographical image of the psyche — the light self and the shadow self, the conscious and the unconscious, linked through underground channels. Each contains the other without denying it, like a perfect yin and yang symbol. This is how they have survived as a self-renewing system for a million years.” •

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