Kapka Kassabova’s Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe recounts an extraordinary journey to the borderlands of Eastern Europe. It is a journey back to the land of her childhood and a reflection on the rich – and sometimes tragic – history of the region, where the ghosts of Herodotus rub shoulders with the ghosts of the Soviet Union. Meditating on the borders that exist between countries, cultures and within our own individual identities, this blend of travel writing and memoir brings a unique view to contemporary debate.
What made you want to go on this extraordinary journey?
I think I was always going to make this journey: not simply back to the land of my childhood, but also back to the border of my childhood. Growing up in the shadow of such a border was a formative experience. I think it has made me who I am, both as a writer and a person. It sensitised me to the existence of borders all around us, and their effect on people. I felt the effect of that border on me quite early on in my life; I felt it before I could really understand it. The border zone was always out of bounds for ordinary people, but there was a sense of fear and arbitrary injustice. Although it started as an inchoate experience, it grew into a more articulate, obsessive focus, and I felt ready to make the journey.
The echo of the Soviet regime permeates the entire book. What was the most potent example you came across of the Soviet regime affecting real people?
I think every encounter affected me; each one was a surprise. I thought I was familiar with this border due to my primordial childhood experience, but I only partly knew it. One of the biggest surprises was in Turkey, in the last section of the book. I had believed that the Iron Curtain only cast a shadow over my side of the border, so I was surprised to discover quite how much the Soviet regime had impacted the Turkish side. There was a poignant mirror effect – every person on their side of the border had an equivalent experience to ours, regardless of the differing stripes of our ideologies.
After having completed the tour, did you feel any better acquainted with or closer to your homeland? Did you feel a greater emotional sensitivity to that part of your identity?
Yes, but most importantly, I felt connected to the entirety of the Eastern Balkans. That was the overwhelming experience for me – we are all connected. That’s one of the paradoxes of the border; it is there to divide us, but each human experience is connected. I was left with a feeling of profound human connectedness and a lot of hope in sheer human survival.
I’d like to draw on the fluidity of culture described in the book. At one point, you describe a man wearing both a crucifix and a Turkish eye. You can identify difference between European and Asiatic culture, but not on the border – there is a true cultural confluence. What was your experience of those inter-cultural interactions?
It was a big revelation for me. But there is a definite sense of cultural flow within the region. The official history does not expose the human truth on the ground. Despite all the ideology and hard borders, there continues to be an intermingling of culture. This process predates the five centuries of Ottoman rule; you can find the same intermingling of cultural forms in the Byzantine era. The natural order of life in the Balkans is one of religious and civilisational syncretism. It is an organic process of cultural flow and interaction. Above all, it’s something to be celebrated rather than purged.
At the moment, it feels as though borders are hardening, just as it must have felt when the Soviet curtain came down. However, the book left me with a hopeful sense that these borders will eventually move; that they are not as permanent as we often think and that a natural process of movement tends to prevail. I wondered what you thought about that?
It comes down to our human obsession with certainty and hard lines drawn in the sand. The borders certainly are hardening at the moment: since I was last there, there is now a new wall between Turkey and Bulgaria. It’s quite a big, shiny wall but it sends a very clear message. Some of the places in the book have become impossible to reach as a result.
You really get a sense of fluidity, however, when you look at the non-human aspects: the wilderness, the mountains, the plains, the Balkan rivers. These are shared by countries and do not recognise borders, although they are the natural boundaries, I suppose. I found great hope and solace in these encounters. However, I was also left with a sense of the great danger that these environments and natural resources were in. That is the most lasting and irreversible damage we can do as humans. I saw signs of it with major industrial projects in Turkey, and illegal logging and assault on riverbeds in Bulgaria. Those processes are far more irreversible than a shiny wall. I know from experience that walls come down. But we don’t know whether a river without a bed will continue to exist, or whether deforested regions will be able to regenerate themselves. We have to protect that wilderness and value its untouched nature. Ultimately, when we hack into ancient hills or destroy ancient forests we’re committing both an act of murder and an act of suicide.
Josh Kimblin writes for Varsity and is studying History at Christ’s College Cambridge
The winner of the Gordon Burn Prize will be announced at Durham Book Festival on Thursday, 12 October 2017.