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Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe Paperback – September 5, 2017
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“It’s not surprising that Kassabova―who has written three poetry collections, a novel and three memoirs―demonstrates a descriptive sensitivity on the page. . . . But she also possesses a gift that’s bestowed on only the best of travel writers: an ability to zero in on characters who illuminate the condition of a place in time.”―The New York Times Book Review
“Kassabova’s sense of adventure and spontaneity, combined with a lack of artifice . . . are winning qualities in a narrator. . . . Kassabova’s gifts as a poet shine when she describes the mystical, powerful landscape, the book’s true protagonist.”―Newsday
“Rich with a profound sense of the region’s political and cultural history, this travelogue moves at an often meandering pace, its narrative broken up by condensed musings on personal conflict, historical ephemera or folklore. . . . Kassabova devotes herself to intimate vignettes that sparkle with the dark charm of fairy tales and mystical fables. . . . Hosts and drivers, fellow travelers and cynical locals provide a constant hum that reinforces the tension of a territory under constant contest.”―Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
"Kassabova is local enough to dig out the details, and at the same time detached enough to see things without judging them. She observes, listens, and narrates without distorting the story with her opinion. She’s a messenger. A very fair one. In the current state of the world’s refugee crisis, Border is a reminder that those who cross the borders are not just numbers. They are people, and bearers of stories that deserve to be heard."―The Christian Science Monitor
“It’s the story of migration, both modern and historical, of boundaries crossed and crossed out, a story as old as the soil itself.”―Literary Hub
“[A] marvelous new travelogue. . . . Border is that rarest of things: a travel book with a conscience that is also a compendium of wonders.”―Los Angeles Review of Books
“Kassabova’s sense of adventure and spontaneity, combined with a lack of artifice . . . are winning qualities in a narrator. . . . Kassabova’s gifts as a poet shine when she describes the mystical, powerful landscape, the book’s true protagonist. . . . We are left with a clear emotional and sensory imprint of the Balkan borderlands.”―Pioneer Press (St. Paul)
“An ethereal siren’s song woven from the myths, legends, and languages that converge in the borderland. . . . The result is a portrait of a place out of time, separate from the countries the speakers inhabit―a distinctive space that the reader can enter too after falling under Kassabova’s spell. Reading Border is a dizzying reminder of the common humanity found on either side of any border.”―The Christian Century
“This may very well be the best book I’ve read this decade.”―Alex Balk, The Awl
“Kassabova’s book is closer to a superbly executed work of anthropology. What sets it apart is the brilliance of her prose: time and again the lurking poet bursts forth.”―Current History
“[An] engrossing travelogue. . . . Kassabova proves to be a penetrating and contemplative guide through rough terrain.”―Publishers Weekly, starred review
“As Kassabova travels through the hinterlands of Bulgaria, along the border where that country meets Turkey and Greece, she discovers that borders shape the lives of both those who attempt to cross them and those who live nearby. . . . Border offers a dark look at a world of smugglers and spies, where the past maintains its hold even as people struggle to reach a brighter future."―Booklist
“A dreamlike account that subtly draws readers into the author’s ambivalent experience of a homeland that has changed almost beyond recognition.”―Kirkus Reviews
“This is an exceptional book, a tale of travelling and listening closely, and it brings something altogether new to the mounting literature on the story of modern migration. . . . [At a moment] when asylum-seekers are adrift from one end of the world to the other, Border makes for timely reading.”―New Statesman (UK)
“Riveting, beautifully written. . . . Kassabova, a poet and novelist as well as an essayist, is ideally placed to take us on a journey to a corner of Europe that even today seems exotic and little known. . . . In this region nearly everyone is at only one or two generational removes from exile and displacement, scattered among three alphabets and several nations; and along the way Kassabova meets treasure-hunters, refugees, retired spies, smugglers, hunters, botanists, healers, artists, Gypsies (Roma), forest rangers and -border guards. . . . Her wry wit leavens the narrative and keeps it from collapsing under the weight of cumulative tragedy. . . . This is travel writing with lexical precision (“transhumance”, “karst”) and a sense of adventure, but with a distinctively female slant. . . . With the best of travel writers, Kapka Kassabova is an explorer, viewing everything with the eyes of discovery, even as she uncovers strata of history and legend. She makes us long to peer closely at the map, and see these wondrous places for ourselves.”―The Times Literary Supplement (UK)
About the Author
- Publisher : Graywolf Press; First Edition (September 5, 2017)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 400 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1555977863
- ISBN-13 : 978-1555977863
- Item Weight : 1.1 pounds
- Dimensions : 5.58 x 1.15 x 8.17 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #431,544 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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Kassabova has a poet's eye for landscape, an instinct for finding exactly the right people, and the ability to fade into the background to let their stories shine through, all while shading her journey with her own stories and questions. It's a delicate balance.
She introduces her readers to a fascinating but little-known part of Europe: that strange and often overrun corner where the borders of Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece meet, and where rusting barbed wire and abandoned guard towers are being slowly consumed by forests and mountains that slide into the Black Sea.
But Kassabova doesn't just straddle these physical borders. Her story also straddles the borders of mystery and superstition, and the unexplainable events that can happen in a place as marginal as this.
Having lived in northern Greece and visited Bulgaria about the time Kassabova was born there, I can attest to the all that she describes lurking in the shadows. But Kassabova has a brilliance not only in bringing the soul of a place into language but also describing with great depth and understanding the darkness and the himanity and humor of the various characters she met in her travels there.
Read this book (of her equally impressive book on tango called Twelve Minutes of Love) even if you never go anywhere near this part of the world. It is about roots and danger and history and the resiliency of the human spirit.
Top reviews from other countries
Ancient history and countries along the old Silk Routes particularly interest me so a book on Thrace is a great find. Kapka tell us about the tunnels, tombs and treasures found, and yet to be found, but the real essence of the book is in the magic of the forest and mountains and the frequently tragic human stories of the last 100+ years about the border crossings, voluntary and coerced, between Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, between East and West, between Europe and Asia, between Christianity and Islam. All this is captured in the most beautiful, haunting and magical language.
Reading it I am immediately enticed to visit Strandja but my lack of the languages and grounding in the area means that I know I will never capure the magic that Kapka finds there. I will just have to imagine it, which I find I can attempt to do given her ability to capture and communicate. I will continue to do that because this is a book that will live long in my thoughts.
Part One is about the first part of her visit to the region, just on the Bulgarian side of the border. It is an area which, away from the Black Sea coastal resorts, is very little known in the West. But it is steeped in history, going back to Greek myths (which Kassabova frequently calls in aid) and ancient history. Then there is the more recent history: the aftermath of the First World War, which had seen forcible population exchanges of Greeks and Turks; the Second World War as an ally of Nazi Germany, and the country was the base from which in 1941 German troops invaded Greece; communism; the brutal expulsion in 1989 of ethnic Turks (340,000 people, 8% of the population) from Bulgaria, just before communism collapsed; and the capitalist post-communist period. There was the period when the frontier guards on the Bulgarian side were stopping people who were fleeing south from communist regimes; by the time of Kassabova’s visit, the guards were checking Syrian refugees from fleeing north. All these events are illustrated by the very many stories – some of them horrific - told to the author by the villagers she meets, and with whom she clearly established a rapport. She is present at ancient rituals, like visiting springs to be cured of ailments, ceremonies in which icons are washed and in which people walk through hot embers. There are still local superstitions. She is told of some people who have the gift of prophesy, and there is a long, complicated and rather tedious story of the sinister fates of hunters after treasures said to be hidden in a mine. The locals claim to have frequently seen a ball of fire above the local river. Kassabova (who is very sensitive to atmosphere) even thought she had once seen it herself. It is the best part of the book.
In Part Two, Kassabova crosses into Turkish Thrace. I found this part much less interesting (and harder to follow) than the first. In any case, many of the encounters she has in this part are not in Turkey at all, but back in Svilengrad and Harmanli, both in Bulgaria. These places are full of refugees from other countries like Syria or Iraqi Kurdistan: one tragic story follows another. In Turkey, her first stop, so different from the small villages she had visited in Bulgaria, was the bustling city of Edirne (Adrianople), with its mosques and minarets, and swarming with people of different nationalities, many of them again refugees. During this part of her journey, she does not seem to have visited other parts of Turkish Thrace.
In Part Three, she has moved into the Rhodope range of mountains, on Bulgaria’s border with Greece. An Islamic group of ethnic Bulgarians known as the Pomaks, some 220,000 strong, live there, as persecuted by the Bulgarians as were the ethnic Turkish minority. (The smaller number of Pomaks who lived in Greece were likewise distrusted by the Greeks.) In Bulgaria they were forced to slavicize their Arabic names. At one time they had been deported north before being allowed back later. There, Kassabova met men who had been smugglers of people and of goods when the border between Bulgaria and Greece was a hard one. (Now the two countries were both in the European Union.) They took her over the border into Greece. There she had a terrifying experience, fleeing from the guide she had, wrongly, distrusted. (She always had a vivid imagination.)
In Part Four, she crosses back into Turkish Thrace, into the border region just south of Bulgarian Thrace and just East of Greek Thrace. More terrible stories of how the people of that area suffered from the lawless soldiery during the Greek-Turkish Wat of 1919 to 1922. I lost track of all the displacements, of families from elsewhere coming to have a look at the half-empty and semi-ruined villages in which they or their ancestors had once lived. The people of one of the villages were descendants (?) of Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) refugees - from the 1990s, during the break-up of Yugoslavia? Kassabova does not say.
Her final crossing is back to the village in Bulgaria from which she had set out two years earlier. She says she was tempted to stay in the area, notwithstanding the terrible events that have afflicted the region in the past, and whose memories still haunt the people, and the sadness that still hovers over life there. She feels an identification with the region; she is drawn to the folk myths and the non-rational beliefs and intuitions of the local people. She has loved so many of the characters she has met; and she ends with the sort of philosophical musings, touched with mysticism, which we have found intermittently throughout the book, and which will not be to everyone’s taste. They are not really to mine, and I also found the book too long and, in parts, too confusing.
There is no map, at least not in the Kindle edition. I found this a severe handicap, but I found a map by googling the Kassabova website. I printed it out, and found it invaluable in following her journey.