Flowing free of the fences

To The Lake
By Kapka Kassabova
(Granta, £14.99)

Maps tell stories, not just in the features they show and how they name them, but in what they conceal. So it is with local maps of a lake district in the south-west of the Balkan peninsula. That district contains Ohrid and Prespa, the two oldest lakes in Europe, which may have been formed as long as three million years ago. The lakes and the Galicica mountain between them are one ecosystem, and Ohrid is partly fed by underground streams from Prespa that flow through the limestone of the mountain. But you would never guess it from the maps.

Whether you’re a resident or a traveller, you can’t buy a map that shows the district as a whole. What nature united, nation states have divided. Albania, Greece and what is now North Macedonia are current claimants to territory here, so while birds and beasts (including golden eagles, brown bears and wolves) wander where they like, humans run into frontiers. There is, says Kapka Kassabova, a “wilful blindness to the bigger picture so magnificently embodied by the lakes”.

Kassabova is a frontier-crosser, in person and on the page. She was born in Bulgaria under communism, emigrated with her parents to New Zealand and now lives in the Scottish Highlands. On the book jacket she is described as “a poet, novelist and writer of narrative non-fiction”, and it’s the last for which she is best known in Britain. With the wonderful Border (2017), she focused on the land where Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey run into one another. It was, in part, a travel book — which is why the awards it won included the Stanford Dolman prize — but it was also a work in which she segued seamlessly between myth and history, memoir and reportage.

To the Lake is another triumph. A fine book in its own right, it also serves as a follow-up or companion volume to Border; part of a sustained examination of the effects of fences on the ground and in the head and their enduring legacies.

Though Kassabova is a citizen of the world, she can’t escape the pull of the southern Balkans. To The Lake is partly an attempt to understand “the low-level oppressiveness that was indistinguishable from home and homeland”, and to put it behind her. That’s why she starts in the Macedonian town of Ohrid, birthplace of her grandmother.

Ohrid was the birthplace, too, of an ancestor who drove his horses and mules along the Via Egnata, a Roman road that linked Dyrrachium on the Adriatic with Constantinople on the Bosphorus (and on which he was known as “Dimo the Albanian”). It’s a town where she is constantly bumping into relations, and where the elderly greet her with the words “Whose are you?”

That can take a while to answer in this part of the world, where there has been so much fighting and fleeing, so much drawing and redrawing of borders. Kassabova, who admits that she herself gets “vertigo” trying to untangle the strands, eases the way for the reader by putting a human face on history.

She visits villages that identify as Albanian but speak Macedonian; families where the parents speak Macedonian but the children Albanian. There are stories of mothers maiming sons to save them from conscription, of night-time escapes across the water, of a 10-year prison sentence for saying, in Enver Hoxha’s Albania, that Yugoslav-made socks were better. Everywhere, in this land of connected lakes, are  people counting the cost of separation.

Kassabova explores Greek Prespa with a friend from Australia, Nick, who’s “like an Atlas carrying the weight of Macedonia on his shoulders”. His father had been born in the then Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia; his maternal grandmother in Aegean Macedonia, to the south, now northern Greece; and his maternal grandfather in the province of Pirin Macedonia, in western Bulgaria. When his great-grandmother died in Adelaide, and the family asked the local Orthodox priest to conduct a service, he refused — on the grounds that he was Greek and they were Macedonian.

As the subtitle has it, this is “A Balkan journey of War and Peace”. The lakes themselves are sanctuaries throughout, but Kassabova finds reasons for optimism on their shores, too, especially in Albania, which she was visiting for the first time: “[It] had been severely tyrannised from within and from without, but its most enduring quality remained tolerance, a live-and-let-live attitude that once characterised the entire Balkans. This seemed to me almost miraculous…”  MK

This review was written for The Daily Telegraph and went online on the Telegraph site on July 26, 2020