“A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature,” reads the epigraph to Kapka Kassabova’s To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace. “It is Earth’s eye, looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” The quotation is from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden of 1854, often borrowed cheaply as a shortcut for performative environmentalism or transcendentalism – but in this case, it works. It is a fitting description of what the Bulgarian-born writer Kassabova sets out to do; confront the real and symbolic significance of these vast pools of human reflection.
As with her previous work Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe – an observant account of the ancient region of Thrace, now split between Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece – To the Lake takes a tripartite landmass as its subject. This time, Kassabova journeys into the snow-capped mountains of Albania, North Macedonia and Greece flanked by the Adriatic and Aegean seas. Embedded in this rugged topography are two lakes – Ohrid and Prespa – uniquely connected by underground streams. Between one- and three-million years old, the lakes belong to an ancient timescale; memories of Macedonian, Illyrian, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and communist civilisations are mere flickers on their cosmic consciousness.
Neatly adhering to rules of three, Kassabova’s well-researched and personal book contains three strands: vivid travelogue, ancestral memoir and historical analysis. Tracing the contours of the lakes by boat, foot and car, each of the lyrical chapters contains lucid stories of the shores’ inhabitants, whose tales of persecution and resistance resemble those of her own family.
On these ancestral elements, Kassabova is excellent, balancing reverence and a sincere reckoning with the past. Growing up, Ohrid was synonymous with her grandmother, Anastassia, who lived between Ohrid and Sofia and, like the lake itself, is cast as an iridescent, warm figure. Leaving communist Bulgaria for New Zealand as a child, Kassabova left behind the summer holidays at the lake, and with them, unanswered questions about the wound that passed down her maternal lineage. The affliction is psychogeographic, inflicted by the cumulative sense of loss caused by war and oppressive governments, border disputes and family rivalries, broken relationships and forced exile.
“When I look back,” she writes, “I see that my grandmother, my mother and I were taking turns in a pre-scripted drama… The patients alternated, but the illness remained.”
This illness, Kassabova suggests, has its origins in the lake and inherited generational trauma. Its appearance, however, is hazy, felt rather than seen, “as if a shard from some past wreckage kept getting stuck in the system, obstructing the flow”. Kassabova’s return to Ohrid is fuelled by a compulsion to inspect this shard more closely, and maybe, through self-knowledge and reflection, even remove it altogether.
Like Anastassia, who “was more than one person, a whole nation of souls, a clamorous hinterland of back-story”, the lake too appears to contain polyglot whisperings of ghosts. These voices accompany Kassabova on her journey. Presented as epigraphs to each chapter, the writers Živko Cingo and Ismail Kadare, Macedonian folk songs, British explorers Rebecca West and Edith Durham and the poet Rumi murmur throughout. The literary tributaries of the lakes, we learn, are far-reaching.
Myth, folklore and paganism have all contributed to the sedimentary architecture of the region, layer upon layer of contradictions and continuations. Kassabova describes the Balkan peninsula as “an arena both of marriage and of war not only between Christianity, Islam and Judaism, but also between the Occident and the Orient”. She meets an individual called Mustafa, “a Muslim who showed visitors around the Christian heritage of a town that still had nine working mosques”, characterising this as a truly “Ohridian occurrence”. Similarly, she writes of two brothers who felt themselves to be of different nationalities. “One said he felt Greek. The other felt Bulgarian. How can one mother give birth to sons of different identities?”
There is a tendency for the West to imbue the Balkans with a near fantastical complexity. To “Balkanise” means “to divide a region or body into smaller, mutually hostile states or groups”, while a salade macédoine in French translates as “the ultimate mixed salad”. (The book is filled with enjoyable linguistic illuminations such as these.) Kassabova too admits: “Everything here was so connected and contradictory at the same time, that I was getting vertigo trying to follow the different strands.”
Kassabova, however, also wants to disrupt this stereotype that befalls generation after generation, each one “looked down upon as ‘others’ with names too difficult to pronounce and histories too complex to grasp”. She achieves this through deft storytelling, elevating the individual struggle over group generality.
To the Lake is peopled by memorable characters, brought alive in ethnographic detail. There is the anxiety-inducing story of Bashir, who rowed across Ohrid at midnight with his family to escape Albania under Enver Hoxha. There is Tanas, the frosty boatman, and son of Macedonian parents from opposing sides of the Ohrid border; and Lazar and Liridon, Kassabova’s guides through the lake’s pre- and post-communist ruins. She presents the region as containing multitudes of human experience, stories of great suffering and defiance, cruelty and comedy. If disbelief remains, it’s a result of too much reality, not fantasy.
For a region enmeshed in recent conflict, the symbolic forgiveness of the lake is poignant. Kassabova tells us that agon (violent contest) inevitably leads to agonia (agony). But all is swallowed by the lake, and its merciful embrace. “I imagined that the tears of all the women and men of the lake,” writes Kassabova, “were sucked into these plugholes, drawn into the Earth’s memory.” It’s a sobering reminder of our insignificance against the lake’s Methuselan lifespan.
This is not to say our actions don’t have ecological consequences, as Kassabova alludes to with subtle, yet chilling, urgency. “Among all the elements, water is the one that outlives the rest,” she writes. “Water… may have the last word on Earth.”
To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace
Granta, 400pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 05 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Europe after Brexit