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Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe Paperback – 2 Feb 2017
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'A marvellous book about a magical part of the world... It shows more starkly than anything else I have read what the border did to the people who lives along it, and how its legacy endures... Kassabova, a poet, writes lyrically and effectively about the astonishing natural beauty of much of the area... as [she] arcs across countries and centuries in an effort to free herself from the enchantment of this strangest of regions. In the end she leaves, but the spell remains' -- Book of the Week, Guardian
'Like a sharp-eyed magpie, [Kassabova's] travels across the border in this place with three alphabets, picking up intriguing titbits of history and folklore... With a lightness of touch, [...] the tragedies, ironies and curiosities of this often-overlooked corner of Europe, with hotchpotch of peoples, are captured by Kassabova's vivid phrasings' -- The Times
'This smokily intense and quiveringly powerful travel book is about the wild, forested and tragic borderland between Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. Kassabova [...] has the travel-writer's core skill of acute sensitivity to her physical environment, together with a poet's turn of phrase and a poet's emotional rawness... Kassabova is, above all, sensationally good at meeting extraordinary people, and that is surely the travel writer's essential skill... [Border] is aromatic, lyrical, disturbing - and very, very fine' -- Sunday Times
'[Kassabova] has an old-fashioned gift for storytelling... Border brilliantly reveals the effects of a millennium of kaleidoscopic shifting. Thoughtful and impressive' -- Observer
'With the deft touch of a historian, she connects the voices of those who have struggled to cross borders across the centuries... Kassabova is a poet, and her writing is beautiful - moving and witty by turns... In a world ever more divided, ever more threatened by Mexican walls, restrictive new passports and fear of the unknown, we need books like this' -- Financial Times
'[Kassabova] segues seamlessly between myth and history, memoir and reportage. Border is a great [travel book]. But it's more than that: it's a big-hearted book for what seems an increasingly mean-spirited age. It spells out the human consequences of nationalism and totalitarianism; of a narrow focus on identity and ethnicity; of divisions and fences and walls designed to keep 'them' from 'us'' -- Daily Telegraph
'Kapka Kassabova's poignant, erudite and witty third book, Border, brings hidden history vividly to light... She treads lightly but distinctly through the stories she tells, displaying an enviable mixture of rapport with her subjects and detachment from their peculiarities... It's a 'melancholy miracle', writes Ms Kassabova, that 'odd ragged bits of this once-rich human tapestry' survive. They could have no better chronicler' -- Economist
'[Kassabova's] hunger and fascination with this little known region has resulted in Border, one of those books that elevates travel writing to art... Mystery, of course, is at the heart of her book. The mystery of marginal points and marginal people' -- Herald
'[A] timely and moving book... Her writing powerfully weaves history, folklore, reportage and personal reflections... Border is illuminating, passionate and sometimes funny. It brilliantly ventriloquises the voice of this mysterious, often plundered part of Europe, revealing the ironies of nationalism and the profound way in which ethnicity and displacement can affect the human psyche' -- Country Life
'A brilliantly diverse and skillful writer... [Kassabova's] narrative nonfiction is renowned... Fascinating' -- Big Issue
'This beautiful, tragic and universal new book may just be the most important you read in this year of Brexit' --Skinny
'This exceptional book about a journey though Bulgaria's dark, often magical borderlands is every bit as the travel writing of Patrick Leigh Fermor' -- Sunday Times, Top Five Non-Fiction Books for Summer
'She picks up intriguing bits about folklore, history and modern living [and] has a light touch... Vividly written' -- Summer Must-Reads, The Times
'[A] remarkable personal exploration of the borderland between Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey. The Bulgarian-born poet converses with strangers -- guards, treasure-hunters, botanists, refugees, smugglers -- to release unusual, vivid, poignant human stories. She comes to it with a poet's sensibility and a journalist's curiosity. A wonderful, luminous combination' -- New Internationalist
'[A] valuable book [that] brings to life not just a neglected region but also one of the themes of our time: borders, open and closed... A book of our time' -- Scottish Legal News
'Kapka Kassabova writes with such energy and style that you feel she could visit the dullest place on earth and make it burst into life. But she has found somewhere extraordinary, the borderland between Greece and Bulgaria and Turkey - one of history's well-worn playgrounds. The individual stories she tells - by turns dramatic and poignant, tragic and comic - are played against a ceaseless round of brutal wars and shifting empires. Border is a brilliant and hugely satisfying book' -- Philip Marsden
'[Kassabova] has achieved something remarkable: a book about borders which makes the reader feel sumptuously free. An effect achieved by the way she moves between literary borders so gracefully: travelogue and existential drama; political history and poetry' -- Peter Pomerentsev
'Like the places it describes, the book holds you in a kind of mysterious electrical charge. It hums with the mystery, superstition, and terrible beauty of a place crushed between man-made borders but also defiantly announcing its sacred otherness. I can't stop thinking about it' -- Frances Stonor Saunders
'The literature of place is crying out for a talent as magical, brilliant and original as Kapka Kassabova's. She writes with taut intelligence and poetic intensity, a shrewd and grown-up worldliness and a rapt sense of all that isn't in the world, a combination that I've been looking this entire century.When Border arrived in my life, I felt as if I'd been struck by lightning' -- Pico Iyer
'This is a dazzling work of art and reportage, an iridescent book, glittering with stories of horror, comedy and actual magic. Kassabova is a brilliant traveller, an astonishing interviewer and writer with a near clairvoyant understanding of the real lives of man and women. In Border, she follows some fierce, sorcerous current which carries us all towards frontiers: there is an urgent and engrossing story here' -- Horatio Clare
'In Kassabova's study these tragic borderlands are brought to life with poetic grace, and her interaction with their inhabitants confers a haunting power on her journey' --Colin Thubron
'Kassabova writes beautifully about the millions of refugees exchanged between Greece and Turkey' -- Prospect Magazine
'An extraordinary book... There are moments of dynamism and hope in these pages... It's to be hoped that Kassabova, with her glorious prose and open heart, always takes care but never abandons the quest [of storytelling]' -- Geographical Review
'Passionately lived... [Kassabova's] descriptions of place are lyrical and gorgeous... it's her encounters with people which bring the book to life... She lets the echoes in the stories she hears tell a wider story' -- Literary Review
'Written with compassion and intelligence, the prose here is as clear and fresh as a mountain stream. This is a timely and important book, and I can't recommend it highly enough' -- Big Issue
'An exceptional travel book that's every bit as good as the writing of Patrick Leigh Fermor' -- Sunday Times
'An accomplished poet and polyglot, [Kassabova] writes exquisite prose, dripping with scorn for the politicians whose bone-headed rules and careless greed despoil the land ad ruin the lives of those who still live there' -- 1843 Magazine
'Kapka Kassabova is a modern Scheherazade - a dazzling writer who tells stories as if her life depended on it... As this wonderful book goes on, a kind of deep background music begins to be heard: themes and images which recur and weave all the voices into a pattern... Spell binding' -- Scottish Review of Books
'A magical book... Kassabova captures the lingering ethnic tapestry of the region, its pagan-like religions and fire-walking cults, in poetic prose of mystical elegance' --Scottish Legal News
About the Author
Kapka Kassabova was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, and now lives in the Scottish Highlands. She is the author of several poetry collections, numerous travel essays, the novel Villa Pacifica (2011), and the acclaimed memoirs Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria (2008) and Twelve Minutes of Love: A Tango Story (2011). She has written for the Sunday Times, the Guardian, Vogue, and 1843 magazine.
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As Kapka touched upon her travels on the border in her previous book, I thought that maybe it there would be a large amount of print that I'd read before, this is simply not the case. I would say that this is not some twee travel book trying to sell the 'nice' face of Bulgaria - she tells it like it is - and this appears to upset some people who would rather bury the very real and not too happy recent past of this region.
An excellent insight into a border area that has hardly been heard of in the West and understood even less.
It doesn't flinch from discussing the difficult periods of the twentieth century and the dislocation of people by these events, but still manages to be positive and uplifting as people survive in their borderland homes.
There is an air of eerie uncertainty that hangs above this journey, giving it a deliciously dark and enchanting feel, a bit like watching a scary film, but knowing that another nasty or morbid surprise cannot be too far away. Kassabova takes us on a tour along the fringes of the Iron Curtain. But not along the traditional boundaries this image conjures up. Berlin had the wall, Bulgaria had the Klyon. The Klyon was the pet name Bulgarian soldiers gave to the electrified, alarmed wall of barbed wire that ran through the forest and sealed the country off from its neighbours to the south, from 1961 to 1990. The strip of land that ran alongside it was known as the Furrow of Death. This furrow was once tended by local children, so that the footsteps of any trespassers/escapees could easily been seen by the guards.
Bulgaria suffered from the same kind of sinister surveillance and horrendous oppression, just in a slightly different form, but as we see it would often lead to the same fatal consequences. But there is more to it than just former Soviet satellite state. This is a part of the world packed with hidden archaeological treasures beneath its landscape. Some of the objects found date as far back as six thousand years ago. We see how the constant variations in the political, ideological, nationalist and religious tensions that trigger various forms of war, persecution and immigration, that have helped to shape and form the land.
Being a published poet Kassabova does sprinkle some poetic lines in here and there, but not to the point that it gets over the top or self-indulgent. Her measured restraint ensures we get a nice flow and balance, allowing us to really build up some powerful and vivid imagery of these mysterious and unknown places tucked away in the Balkans. We regularly get treated to some really nice passages throughout the book, which really enhance the mood, feel and flavour of her odyssey. We hear of gypsies, communists, traitors, liars, guards, refugees, charlatans, peasants, poets, murderers and dreamers all trying to make their way.
Some of the more memorable descriptions include, “He had the low, dense physique of a wrestler, like several short men packed into one, and a dark ruin of a face that didn’t bode well.” Or what about, “Galen was eighty, but looked like a giant oak full of sap. Galen meant beloved. His hands were like spades, I imagined them digging a tunnel all the way to the Aegean. He had a leonine head of hair and eyes squeezed in perpetual pleasure.”
The book often feels like a piece of Sci-Fi/Fantasy, with names like, The Judgement (a mysterious cliff top that has a huge drop below, which is covered by mist). Then there is the Village Where You Lived Forever. The mysterious and unexplained ‘Ball of Fire’ that appears to haunt the Village in the Valley. We hear of other surprising facts, like Bulgaria’s previous status as one of the biggest exporters of tobacco in the world. She also visits places like Edirne, the heart of the ancient Thrace, which includes parts of Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. She explores the legacy of the Ottoman’s and the various Balkan wars. She also enjoys the hospitality of places like Svilengrad, (Silk Town), like Edirne it as a town of three countries.
“One of the darkest chapters came when the tobacco warehouses of Macedonia and Thrace were used to herd the Jewish population of the region on their way north to Treblinka. The 11.343 Jews of Drama, Kavala, Xanthi, Serres, and the rest of Macedonia never returned, and British diplomatic attempts to rescue 4,500 Jewish children from this region failed, thanks to a combination of callousness and spinelessness in the Bulgarian monarchy. The sealed up trains of horror that started here passed through Bulgaria, where outraged ordinary people at railway stations tried to intervene. The deportations were energetically executed by the occupying Bulgarians, who allied themselves to the Axis powers for two reasons- a revanchist bid on the rest of Macedonia and Thrace, and total economic dependency on Germany. The two were connected through tobacco-the number one regional export product. Some of the major tobacco merchants were Jewish, and one of the most prominent, the Sofia based Asseoff, escaped to the USA with his family and part of his fortune on a tobacco ship, in the nick of time.”
One of the more surreal and memorable encounters, is when she meets up with a local man by the name of Ziko, on the Road to Freedom, which puts some tense and taut twists into her story. It shows us that this is a part of the world that can shift dramatically from hospitality to hostility in a few escalating seconds, or even the reverse. This was a really well written book on a truly fascinating part of the world, with a rich, volatile and compelling history behind it. It has chilling echoes of the events depicted in books such as “Stasiland” and “Burying The Typewriter” and like those it comes highly recommended.
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