The dread zone: Kapka Kassabova's uneasy return to her homeland

by Linda Herrick / 09 May, 2018
Kapka Kassabova: “I hope this book can help people take away ideas about living with hard borders and what that does to a culture.” Photo/Alamy/Getty Images

Kapka Kassabova: “I hope this book can help people take away ideas about living with hard borders and what that does to a culture.” Photo/Alamy/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Kapka Kassabova

Kapka Kassabova returns to New Zealand, where she started her writing career, with an acclaimed book about revisiting the dark heart of her Bulgarian homeland. 

When Kapka Kassabova was a little girl growing up in totalitarian Bulgaria during the 1970s and 80s, her Sofia-based family enjoyed rare beach breaks on the country’s Black Sea coast.

The “Red Riviera” was a playground for “the gilded youth of the Eastern bloc”, Kassabova writes in Border, her heartfelt book exploring the traumatic history and legacy of a region demarcated by deadly peripheries.

With rave reviews worldwide, it has won the 2017 Saltire Book of the Year and the 2018 Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year and was shortlisted for last year’s Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction.

Since the 1960s, Czech, Polish, Hungarian, Russian and East German holidaymakers had boosted the feeble Bulgarian economy, and tourism was becoming its biggest industry.

On one beach holiday, as 10-year-old Kapka fixated on an East German teenager from Berlin, she also started to brood about a southern neighbour, “beyond the border”: Turkey. It might as well have been on the Moon.

Bulgarians were barred by barbed-wire fences and border patrols from visiting any country outside the Eastern Bloc. That meant, she writes, “you developed a permanent border-like feeling inside you, like indigestion”.

Moreover, she later discovered, the beaches were “awake with spying eyes”, working for Bulgarian State Security, alongside Czech, Stasi and KGB agents, playing tourists as they watched the locals. Bulgarians were trapped in what she describes as “an open-air prison”, and Kassabova began to develop “a feeling of melancholy revolt”.

“I wasn’t aware of the details of the situation and I don’t think my parents were, either,” Kassabova, 45, says on the phone from her home in the Scottish Highlands. “Most civilians didn’t know that we were infiltrated by secret agents from several countries and our own. The Black Sea was a gathering point for the Eastern Bloc because of its natural attraction and cheapness.

“But what I was aware of was the atmosphere, this sense of being so close to Turkey and Greece, yet knowing I may never see those countries, and the profound feeling of something unhealthy, something rotten being at the core.”

Six years after that particular Black Sea holiday, the Berlin Wall fell, and like millions of Bulgarians, the Kassabova family fled, in their case first to England, then to New Zealand in 1992, when Kapka was 19.

A decade later, overwhelmed by a yearning for Europe, she moved to London, Edinburgh and now the Shire of Inverness, where she lives in an old crofter’s cottage. “I’ve gone rustic,” she says with a laugh.

Kassabova, who speaks four languages – Bulgarian, Russian, English and French – did a master of arts degree in creative writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University.

She made her publishing debut in New Zealand aged 24 with a poetry collection, All Roads Lead to the Sea, which was shortlisted in the 1998 Montana Book Awards.

Her first novel, Reconnaissance, won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book Asia-Pacific in 2000. Two years later, she was awarded the Creative NZ Berlin Writer’s Residency and the Landfall Essay Competition Prize.

“I am able to support myself full-time as a writer now,” she says wryly. “Only after 20 years of writing, changing countries, starting from scratch, as I did.”

Kassabova first returned to Sofia to retrace her childhood living in an ugly urban housing district, detailed in her highly acclaimed 2008 memoir, Street Without a Name. Freedom from totalitarian rule, she discovered, had opened the door to entrepreneurial elements of corruption and racketeering.

This new book is mainly rural: it traverses forests and mountains previously militarised because they were on the south-east border with Turkey and Greece. These are ancient lands, “prickly with dread”, imbued with “the undercurrent of mysticism informing the Bulgarian psyche”, she writes. Many thousands of people have been killed there over the centuries.

Travelling there several times from 2013-15, Kassabova began her journey in the Village in the Valley, a small hamlet (population 200) at the end of a road in the Strandja Mountains, where she rented a house for a month.

“It was in a particularly dense forest,” she recalls. “There was a feeling of very concentrated energy. You are at the bottom of the valley, in the underworld, a world of archetype and symbol. I really felt that. Everything is so stark there because of the depopulation, the plunder, the poor infrastructure, because it is a forgotten place, a traumatised place.”

Life in the village was circumscribed by ritual and superstition: don’t drink from the well more than three times or you won’t be able to leave; watch for the shapeshifting dragon in the sky; take your clothes off the line at night or they will be cursed.

So Kassabova found herself taking in her washing, just in case. “Yeah, at first I had the arrogance of the usual kind of rational urbanite who rocks up very sure of themselves, but I wasn’t so sure at the end.”

She also sought guidance from the village’s bean-reader, who divined her unspoken question: “Will I complete my border journey without anything bad happening?”

The answer: “What you have begun you will complete, but you must heed the signs along the way. Never ever ignore the signs.”

But she was too late to heed the signs during a trip across the border into northern Greece, where she found herself “crawling down a serpentine road from north to south”, behind an old BMW driven by a man called Ziko.

Kassabova had met Ziko a few days before in a Bulgarian hotel restaurant, “a whippet of a man with a hatchet face and straw hair”. He had a history of being a notorious people smuggler, yet she paid him to be her guide: “I trusted Ziko; I sensed goodness in his heart.”

All went well for a few days. Then they hit the road in search of a monastery near the border Ziko said only he could locate.

When she joined him in his car, the vibe had changed. Ziko looked shifty; they passed a convoy of BMWs whose occupants waved at him; she suddenly recalled Ziko’s history.

“I felt things were slipping,” she writes. “No, things had slipped. My stomach was in a knot … I had never felt so certain of imminent doom.”

And then: “A curse fell over the scene.”

“It was the most terrifying thing in my life,” says Kassabova of the episode, which she later recognised as a blinding flash of overwhelming paranoia, triggered by the environment.

“But it was brief. It’s a moment of pure terror, I see it as border terror, what that whole zone emanated, the abandoned villages, the histories of disappeared people. The trauma that I was not rationally learning about but picking up on an energetic and emotional level.

“At the time it was a terrible experience, but now I’m almost grateful for it because it took me beyond the point of being an observer. I experienced the border with all my senses. The absolute dread that so many thousands of people have experienced over the decades … that was a really active theatre of events in that zone. It has absorbed a lot of stress.”

During the course of her trips over the two-year period, Kassabova noticed the swelling number of refugees across the region, thin young Middle Eastern men walking along the roads and creeping through the forests clutching plastic bags containing the last remnants of their lives.

After the Ziko incident, she holed up to recover for a few days in a place called the Hotel Above the World in the Rhodope hills in northern Greece. It had a heart-stopping view of the valley and hills beyond – and of a new maximum-security refugee camp directly below.

“The refugees I talked to don’t want to settle in Bulgaria or Greece because there is no work, aside from the hostility they experience,” she says. “There are good people who are welcoming, but on the whole, eastern Europe and the Balkans are so gripped by their own problems they don’t seem to have compassion for others. I hope this book can help people take away ideas about living with hard borders and what that does to a culture.

“Bulgaria has built a wall with Turkey, Greece built a wall with Turkey, Hungary built a wall with Serbia – all to stop refugees. It is history repeating itself.”

Her border experiences also had their own history, living on in her dreams each night after she returned to Scotland. “The journey had been so profound for me that I needed to write the book,” she says. “That was my cure.”

Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, by Kapka Kassabova (Allen & Unwin, $39.99). Kassabova appears at the Auckland Writers Festival, Aotea Centre, May 15-20.

This article was first published in the May 5, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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