‘A confluence of exile’ [book review]

A review of To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace by Kapka Kassabova

Travel writing hasn’t usually provided me with much cause for melancholy. Nostalgia, perhaps, or a sense of yearning. It may be that I have recently been reading through a lens shaped by the current state of the world – a world in which travel, or at least the possibility of it, is something I miss sorely – yet it seems to me that there is a new breed of travel writing on the block. It is often haunting, this new style, probing old wounds both personal and geographical, offering a deeper sense of connection between humans and the places they live in. I was mesmerised last year by Anna Sherman’s The Bells of Old Tokyo, which struck exactly the right note of bittersweet, and most recently by Kapka Kassabova’s To the Lake, a beautiful blend of travelogue and personal quest for healing. This style of travel writing is raw and compelling, educational and generous, informed by an unwavering sense that to create a better, sustainable world, we need first of all to understand each other.

To the Lake Kapka Kassabova

When it comes to the problem of understanding one another – or what we all too often regard as ‘The Other’ – Kassabova has chosen to explore one of the most complex and illuminating regions of the world, one I now feel glad to have learned more about. In many ways it is less a choice and more a compulsion, returning as she is to the area her family comes from and where she herself spent part of her childhood, but to write about this ‘traumatised topography’ is nonetheless a brave decision – it involves throwing open the door to darknesses both national and individual. Carefully, determinedly and with great compassion, Kassabova paints an intimate portrait of Lakes Ohrid and Prespa, the glittering Balkan jewels that straddle the borders between Albania, Greece and the Republic of North Macedonia.

Magnificent in their natural beauty, the lakes are also a symbol of all that has gone wrong in the human history of this region: the wars, dictatorships and border conflicts that have repeatedly – and particularly in the twentieth century – plunged it into turmoil and despair. Trauma, both experienced and inherited, has afflicted every family from the area, including Kassabova’s own, and from the beginning she makes it clear that her travels through the three countries bordering the lakes will be a very personal journey, a search for inner peace. As the book progresses, however, it grows deeper, just like the lakes, incorporating many other families’ stories and stretching further back in time. And while she never shies away from describing some of the most harrowing episodes the region has seen, doing so with grace and immense sensitivity for the people whose stories she is repeating, again and again Kassabova finds moments of peace and empathy. They are usually fleeting, brief pinpricks of light against a backdrop of darkness, and yet they exist, reflecting the fragile hope that is also to be found on the shores of these lakes.

While there are moving moments aplenty in To the Lake, one particularly memorable scene comes when Kassabova climbs high into the Galicica Mountains with a local guide, whose family comes from the wonderfully named Village of Mean People (many such fairy-tale-like names crop up throughout this book). Wrestling with her own emotions and suddenly finding herself embroiled in absurd exchange of hostilities with her guide, Kassabova lays out with striking honesty the way in which conflicts can flare up and destroy good relationships at a glance. This moment – which does end in reconciliation – marks a kind of watershed in the book, a movement towards a deeper comprehension of the region and its people, and how perhaps to move forward. ‘Here, no one is too young to see the ruins of their youth,’ she writes, but there is a sense that despite the many layers of grief, a better future is possible.

Much of this sense of hope lies in the stories Kassabova unlocks, the voices she makes space for, stepping back as a writer to become an empathetic listener. It comes too from the timelessness of the place, a quality captured in lyrical prose that vividly describes the wild, majestic beauty of the lakes and their mountainous surroundings. The changing light, the seasonal shifts, the eternal influence of the water – all this offers a rhythm that Kassabova reflects in her writing. The natural splendour of such a backdrop often makes the human histories all the more heartbreaking, yet it is responsible for the sense of peace the author ultimately finds. Despite the sorrow that haunts the region, between them the lakes also manage to deliver ‘an exhilaration of wholeness’.

Whether consciously or not, this wholeness is another attribute Kassabova has mirrored with her writing, which besides first-person impressions and conversations incorporates meticulous historical research and a wide array of excerpts from local literature: novels, poems, folk songs and other travellers’ diaries. Together they help to build a rich portrait of place and underline one of the book’s main messages: that ‘time brings understanding’. This refers, of course, to the hours spent on the ground, but also to time spent reading and learning, trying to uncover the forces that have shaped a region and its people over the years. It is a message both deeply rooted in this area, in the author’s personal journey and experiences, but one with universal overtones that can – and should – be applied anywhere in the world.

Far from being just a topographical study, To the Lake is a portrait of exile – ‘a confluence of exile’, Kassabova calls the region – a moving and in many ways essential examination of a condition faced by so many across the globe. In the same vein as all good travel writing, it throws open the doors to a new world, describing unfamiliar places and people in a way that made me want to go there to experience them myself, yet it also offers a more widely valid lesson that couldn’t be more relevant today. As travel becomes more complex, borders increasingly impervious, the others progressively more Other and exile a long-lasting, wide-reaching state, Kassabova gently suggests that there is much we can do to look beyond each beautiful landscape, each shimmering body of water, to learn – and do our best to understand – what really lies beneath.

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