Crossings to Bear

To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace BY Kapka Kassabova. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press. 416 pages. $18.

The cover of To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace

WHILE THE BALKANS are generally not known for neighborliness, that reputation is still quite recent. Most would date it to the mid-nineteenth century, when the rise of the nation-state suddenly spurred competition over inheritances that had traditionally been shared. The term “Balkanization”—which crystallized the peninsula’s characterization as bitterly divided—was coined by the New York Times only in 1918, in the wake of the Balkan wars, when the ousting of the Ottomans sparked a land grab among the kingdoms of the former Balkan League. If anything, the previous centuries of occupying empires—from Illyrians and Thracians to Byzantines and Bulgarians—had imparted a surprising syncretism on the local level. “With luck, a traveler in Macedonia may hear six distinct languages and four allied dialects spoken in the same market place,” British journalist Henry Noel Brailsford observed in his 1906 book, Macedonia: Its Races and Their Future. Even today, the French use salade macédoine to denote a mixed dish—whether tiny cubes of miscellaneous fruit or the mayonnaise-y mess of peas, potatoes, and carrots that Russians prefer to call “French salad.” (Some inheritances remain less welcome than others.)

Kapka Kassabova picks her way through the mélange in To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace. The book focuses on the twin lakes of Ohrid and Prespa, which are wedged between Greece, Albania, and the country now known as North Macedonia. Turquoise, tourist-treaded Ohrid is one of the world’s oldest and deepest lakes. Its perch on the Via Egnatia—the cobblestoned Roman road stretching from the Adriatic to the Bosphorus, effectively connecting Rome to Constantinople—has made it a popular resting place for more than two millennia. Higher up and more forbidding, Prespa is Ohrid’s murkier, shadow sister. Together, the two lakes form a squashed semicolon in the mountainous stretch where the Balkans start to actually look like a peninsula, and not just Europe’s undercarriage.

Like Kassabova’s 2017 breakout, Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, To the Lake is a hybrid of travelogue, social anthropology, folklore, and history. The Bulgarian-born émigré author and poet subscribes to the model of historia set by Herodotus: “The multifaceted, multidisciplinary, often narrative exploration of a subject in the spirit of total enquiry.”

“Spirit” is an apt word for Kassabova. The author is a consummate adventurer and indiscriminate observer, as drawn to abandoned monasteries as to fast-food chicken joints. Talking to strangers is her métier; in kiosks, at curbsides, and in cafés, she harvests myriad little sagas, which cast their own light (or shadow) over a land it seems no one can quite definitively call their own.

Geographically, Border thrust its foot in “the back door of Europe,” tracing the various boundaries—physical, administrative, psychological, even spiritual—lining the mountainous corridors where Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey convene. The book’s one major shortcoming was that it failed to anticipate that these forgotten pathways might soon be remembered, as swells of migrants started pouring into the European Union. Although Kassabova shows compassion for the early refugees she encounters in Border, many of her more indulgent asides have not aged well. (“Once near a border, it is impossible not to be involved, not to want to exorcise or transgress something. Just by being there, the border is an invitation. Come on, it whispers, step across this line. If you dare.”) But Kassabova is angling for a long view. Her interest lies more in the permanent state of transience, in the populations buffeted back and forth between nations until a Macedonian might identify as Greek while his brother considers himself Bulgarian. Borders are places where such arbitrary distinctions are formalized, “where power suddenly acquires a body, if not a human face, and an ideology.”

The liquid boundaries of To the Lake render national divisions invisible. (Well, almost. As one boat captain on Prespa puts it, “Where there’s sun, it’s Greece. Where there’s shadow, it’s Albania.”) On Ohrid, one young guide wistfully dangles the possibility of opening the water border. “The water border didn’t need opening, because it wasn’t there,” Kassabova writes. “That’s what stung about it.”

Lake Prespa, Oteševo, North Macedonia, 2015.
Lake Prespa, Oteševo, North Macedonia, 2015. Dino Angelov/Wikicommons

Without the same physical barriers, the author has to test out other approaches. “I knew from my Border journey that sometimes history’s thoroughfares are disguised as geography’s outposts,” she observes. “The better to fool us that the past is another country.” In the Balkans, the past was other countries—often overlapping. Attempting to tackle Macedonia’s manifold incarnations, she first half-capitulates with a warning from Fred A. Reed’s Salonica Terminus (1996): “To describe the ethnogenesis of Macedonia as ‘complex’ is to understate egregiously its tortuous, labyrinthine obscurity.” Kassabova continues:

I could count no less than five historic Macedonias. Seen on the map, they move like live mercury around the lakes and between the Aegean, Adriatic and Pontic coasts. . . . Which results in a sixth Macedonia—an imaginary one, one that does not exist anywhere except in the desperate collective desire for a great past that is required to infuse the diminished present with meaning and value.

The author supplements field notes with insights from a multigenerational posse of fellow travelers, including the celebrated seventeenth-century Ottoman explorer Evliya Çelebi, the nineteenth-century British painter and poet Edward Lear, the early-twentieth-century anthropologist Edith Durham, and Rebecca West, whose 1941 book Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia is a staple for regional enthusiasts and fans of travel literature alike. The sweeping statements and capital-Q questions are par for the course, but where Kassabova’s book shines is in the casual precision of the author’s own observations. Her style is wily and imaginative, with sentences rapidly gliding into the unexpected. (“The houses looked out towards the lake, like old people remembering.”)

Her witnesses are delightfully unreliable, their tales passed down over generations until one storyteller can’t remember if the conscripting army was Serbian or Bulgarian. As a reader, you get used to introductions like “Angelo from the beach with the dead cow.” You learn to shrug and just be grateful you’re not the one who has to figure out how to get home for the evening. One starts to weary, however, when our adventurer’s gaze turns inward. If readers of Border felt the author to be as elusive as her subject matter, perhaps there was some relief in the quicksilver reportage; in To the Lake, introspection comes less artfully (“To be female is to grieve”).

Both books contain their own gravitational pulls. In Border, a friend warns, “The mountain has let you in. . . . Now it won’t let you out.” Placid on the surface, Ohrid and Prespa are bound by a treacherous system of sinkholes and underground streams ripe for metaphor. And yet the lakes just don’t take the bait. In order to be “let in,” Kassabova must fashion her own anchor out of a family history convoluted enough to give Macedonia’s past a run for its money.

Born in Bulgaria and raised in New Zealand, Kassabova is now based in Scotland, but her grandmother originally hailed from Ohrid. When the author first arrives at the lake, she is perpetually confronted with the question, “Whose are you?” While Kassabova scorns the presumption that “a girl must be somebody’s,” the answer to the question is clear. Like Greece clinging to Macedon, she holds tightly to her matriarchal lineage. Her grandmother, the effusive Anastassia, was both the delight and torment of the town. “To be the apple of her eye felt like being irradiated. It made you glow, and it also made you tired.” The author’s mother, following in Anastassia’s mold, was a self-styled martyr for whom loved ones always appears in italics, as if the letters themselves can’t hold up under the full weight of obligation. “I saw it starkly,” Kassabova writes. “Unless I understood why the two women I had loved and who’d had so much going for them . . . had become tragic Furies, why we were martyrs to an unknown cause—I was next in line.”

Kassabova’s attempts to free herself from their grip are dubious at best. (It’s not even certain who exactly is doing the clinging.) As adept as she is at nailing first impressions of lake strollers and café habitués, Kassabova seems never quite satisfied with the results when she turns to her own family. Her mother is an anvil pinning her down, but at the same time, “precariously attached to life, as if born rootless”: “A strong gust could sweep her away, like a leaf.” There’s a bit of relish and more than a touch of the self-martyrdom Kassabova mentioned earlier when she concludes: “To have Aegean ancestors is to carry loss in your bones, one way or another.” She hardly needs the “Aegean.” Ancestry is loss, period: one horrific dispossession after another, until the present is a reckoning of what can no longer be counted. And yet, Kassabova tries to put down roots in the water.

At the close of Border, a healer exorcises the demons Kassabova accidentally accrued during her stay in the mountains. In To the Lake, this cleansing comes via an ecstatic self baptism in Ohrid, just off the Saint Naum monastery, where the groundskeeper “looked like someone whose thoughts and emotions had been polished like pebbles on the shore.” Before her swim, she contemplates a fresco in which Saint Naum treats “the Nervously Afflicted” by extracting demons from their open mouths. “Utter your truth, find your voice, name your pain, let your demons be released, shed the past, howl if you have to but let go—this seems to be the principle at work.” And with that, the lake finally lets her in.

Kate Sutton is a writer and curator based in Zagreb and an international reviews editor of Artforum.