Inside Story

Injured instincts

Writer Kapka Kassabova continues her beguiling exploration of the Balkans

Sara Dowse Books 12 May 2023 1169 words

“The psyche performs its own alchemy”: Elixir author Kapka Kassabova. Pako Mera/Alamy

Baba Acivé is a woman of indeterminate age with a limp going back to when a granary door fell and crushed her hip many years ago. Her home is high in the mountains lining the valley through which flows the Mesta, the mighty river that runs between North Macedonia and Bulgaria, joins the Nestos in Greece, and empties into the Aegean.

Acivé is a baba, or healer, arguably the most esteemed of an army of healers operating in the heavily forested area near Clear Water River, one of the Mesta’s many mountainous offshoots. All sorts make the pilgrimage to her, she tells Kapka Kassabova: “Some that can’t walk. Some that can’t talk. Some that can’t see and some that can’t hear. Some with tumours and fright. Some come for babies. Some with sick children.”

Kassabova is a poet, novelist and memoirist whose work is a beguiling mix of history, geography, family history and travel. Born in Bulgaria in 1973 when that country was still within the Soviet bloc, she has lived in various places since its break-up in 1991. She now lives in a remote part of Scotland, but the Balkans, the scene of her birth and childhood, have had an enduring pull for her.

In two earlier books, Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria and To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace, she interwove the vicissitudes of her family with the tumultuous history of a mountainous region that has formed the southern crossroad between Europe and Asia down the centuries. Her new book, Elixir, is also dense with information but relieved by the stories of the people she encounters on her travels.

Acivé’s healing power, we’re told, resides in her connection with a megalithic rock with a hole big enough for a person to clamber through. She travels there by bus with her supplicants, who are instructed to bring flour, salt and a length of red thread as long as they are tall. The thread is left on the railing by the ladder they climb to get to the stone; the flour and salt are for its invisible keeper. Acivé approaches the stone with an eclectic assortment of prayers, mainly from the Qur’an, but also from the Bible.

With its narrow hole symbolising rebirth, the rock is unsurprisingly called The Passage. People come from all over Europe hoping to benefit from its curative powers, or simply out of curiosity. It forms part of the tourism that has supplanted the industries that sustained this corner of the world for centuries.

Is Baba Acivé a wise woman or a charlatan? In essence, this is what Elixir is about.

Because of its mountainous inaccessibility, the Mesta basin retains old ways of healing overtaken elsewhere in Europe. From ancient times the area was rich in the medicinal herbs that formed the basis of its economy. The communist regime’s effort to capitalise on the local industry put paid to that. Attempting to transform the herbs into a cash crop, it disrupted the plant ecology and wiped out myriad useful medicinal plants.

Locals began recultivating the herbs after 1989, but large-scale farming brought a repeat of the communist-era disaster. Today, medicinal plant cultivation is a boutique enterprise, often undertaken by newcomers who have responded to the beauty and peacefulness of the region while locals take on seasonal work elsewhere in the European Union.

But plants don’t explain Baba Acivé’s allure. For that, Kassabova turns to psychology. Acivé’s powers, and those of The Passage seem to cure a sufficient number of her supplicants to substantiate her renown. Kassabova is sympathetic: in her view, we moderns suffer from what she calls our “injured instinct,” a general condition in which the mind is so separated from the body that we’ve lost the capacity to trust our own feelings. If the mind can make us sick, she writes, then it also has the power to heal: “The psyche performs its own alchemy.”

Kassabova’s argument here is nothing new, even in pill-popping societies like ours, where an array of medicinal alternatives are popular. Even conventional medical practitioners will encourage meditation alongside modern, allopathic methods.

I’m thankful to live within walking distance of a doctor: needless suffering too often occurs when access to life-saving modern medicine isn’t available. But I’m not about to dismiss Kassabova’s views out of hand, particularly when she draws on the wisdom of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell about the ubiquitous power of myth, or of Nicolas Culpeper and Hildegard of Bingen about the medicinal properties of plants. Nor can I discount the beauty of her prose. And if the political analysis that distinguished To the Lake takes a back seat here, it isn’t missing altogether.

The Pomaks, a people of Bulgarian Slav origin and Muslim persuasion, are prominent among the peoples of the Mesta. Elders like Baba Acivé, maintain lives similar to those of their ancestors, with distinctive customs, clothes and dialect. The communists persecuted them, suppressing their language and their religion.

Just as they introduced cash crops, destroying the native forests and the plants that thrived in them, the Soviets cut traditional Pomak apparel to make it more like that of collective farm-workers. Kassabova contrasts this with how they were treated for centuries under the “laxer” Ottomans. Their empire’s collapse ushered in a wave of homogeneous nationalism that swept away many of its mixed villages. In Kassabova’s reckoning, here was another instance of monoculture; with people as with plants, multiculturalism is ever the better option.

Kassabova marshals a wealth of evidence to support her contentions, incorporating history, botany, folk wisdom, psychoanalytic and ancient philosophical insights, and ecology, each of which has the capacity to enrich our understanding of the world, not to mention ourselves. It’s been perplexing to me, then, that I found this book somewhat disappointing.

Perhaps I am less engaged because the family history that anchored her narrative in Street Without a Name and To the Lake is missing here — though, in their way, her travels up and down the Mesta are more deeply personal, powered by a search for psychic health and connection so many of us humans share. The problem might also stem from this new book’s expanse of sources and material. There’s so much to take in, and if ever a book needed an index it’s this one.

That said, I’m glad to have it sitting on my shelf. Elixir is a book to dip into whenever I want to find out something about a plant or, overcome by bouts of debilitating weltschmerz, need the inspiration and the balm for my soul that Kassabova sought in the wild mysterious mountains of the Mesta. I’m never going to make it there myself, and that in the end is what books like hers are for. •

Elixir: In the Valley at the End of Time
By Kapka Kassabova | Jonathan Cape | $45 | 380 pages

Corrected to reflect the the Bulgarian slav origins of the region’s Pomaks.