Book Review: Border By Kapka Kassabova

Book Review: Border By Kapka Kassabova

Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year Award and the Saltire Society Non-Fiction Book of the Year Award, Border goes beyond your ordinary travel book

Amit Dixit
October 04 , 2018
03 Min Read

When a book by a former contributor to the magazine is published to deafening applause, one can’t help but feel a tinge of pride. Kapka Kassabova’s latest, a travelogue, has won the

Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year Award and the Saltire Society Non-Fiction Book of the Year Award, and has been shortlisted for the prestigious Baillie Gifford Prize for Non- Fiction as well as the Gordon Burn Prize. It takes on a topic of perennial interest, especially to travellers: the border. Imagined but real, the border is the only way nations are defined and validated in modern times. But not for Kassabova any of the accompanying strictures. “Just by being there, the border is an invitation. Come on, it whispers, step across this line. If you dare,” she writes.

This particular iteration of the border-travel book explores the regions where Bulgaria— Kassabova’s homeland—Turkey and Greece converge. This is a border like no other, on the fringe of Europe, hanging like a razor’s edge between East and West.

 When Kassabova was a child, growing up in Bulgaria under the shadow of communism, and even before, these borders were on fire. Years later, now based in Scotland, she returns only to reclaim these places.

Kassabova lays out her purpose quite plainly in the preface: “But the initial emotional impulse behind my journey was simple: I wanted to see the forbidden places of my childhood, the once-militarised border villages and towns, rivers and forests that had been out of bound for two generations. I went with my revolt, that we had been chained like unloved dogs for so long behind the Iron Curtain. And with my curiosity, to meet the people of a terra incognita.” The route she follows is circular, dictated by the natural contours of the region. Her journey begins at the Black Sea, at the edge of the Strandja ranges, descending west into the border plains of Thrace, continuing through the passes of the Rhodope Mountains (“where every peak is legend and every village is not what it seems”), before looping back to Strandja and the Black Sea.

All along, the stunning landscape provides a comforting background hum. History and mythology are evoked to illuminate and deepen the narrative. But, above all, this is a human tale. Kassabova meets (a lot of ) people along the way, strikes up friendships, and teases out their stories. What meaning can an imaginary line have without people to define it? And, for all the sound and fury this region has witnessed over the centuries, Border is a quiet, meditative book, leaving you with much to think about. Kassabova is a self-assured writer who crafts her prose with the greatest care, each line bristling with insight and feeling. Often, you’ll find several thoughts nonchalantly compressed into a sentence, unspooling inside your head long afterwards.

Kassabova writes: “What is a border, when dictionary definitions fail? It is something you carry inside you without knowing, until you come to a place like this [referring to the Devil’s Gorge, a cave with a thundering waterfall where Orpheus is said to have gone into the underworld]? You call into the chasm where one side is sunny, the other in darkness, and the echo multiplies your wish, distorts your voice, takes it away to a distant land where you might have been once.”

Much more than a mere travel book, Border is a philosophical treatise and its insights are universal, unfettered by any specific geography.

Granta, 699

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