“To the Lake” by Kapka Kassabova: transported to another world

Fascinated by Kapka Kassabova’s “Borders”, an evocative portrayal of the little-known area of Thrace split between Bulgaria, where she lived as a child, Greece and Turkey, I was keen to read “To the Lake” which promised to be in a similar vein. The focus is in fact on two lakes, Ohrid and Prespa, connected by underground springs, which lie partly in the little-known republic renamed in 2019 as “Northern Macedonia”. The lake region is also shared with Albania, and in the case of Prespa with Greece as well. Centuries of conflict, migration and mingling mean that families of Macedonian origin, in whole or part, are to be found in all these countries, creating the kind of mixture after which a “salade macédoine” is named.

Ohrid is more of a tourist area, with atmospheric monasteries like St.Naum and former cave churches with ancient, too often desecrated murals, accessed by stone steps from the shore. Yet there is the persistent shadow of the national boundary which Macedonian boats cannot cross for fear of entering Albanian water. In the wilder Prespa area, the Greeks claim that the shadow is cast literally by the mountains, to darken the Albanian portion of the lake. Putting humans to shame, a large population of pelicans coexist amicably with the cormorants, who apparently share with them the fish they dive deep into the lake to catch.

Athough the name “Makedonia” probably comes from the word “tall” to describe the “Macedons” of antiquity, it is often claimed to mean “sorrow” and “strife”, from the Slavic word “maka”. Even local place names reflect this, like the “Mean Valley”, where soldiers suffered so badly scaling the slopes with heavy equipment in deep snow, overlooked by a peak called “Coffin”.

Convinced that what she calls “unprocessed trauma” has been passed down through generations of women on her mother’s Macedonian side of the family, Kapka Kassabova felt compelled to return to the lake region in order to understand the past, and break the pattern of depression, undiagnosed pain and fatigue, wanderlust and eternal longing “for something”.

If this sounds bleak, not to say neurotic, she finds healing in the end, waxing philosophical with lake water metaphors. “Every possibility is still at the source. All it asks of you is to stop struggling. Wade in..and free yourself of the burden you’ve been carrying for centuries…become anything….at one with the water…though what you are in the end is water, a spring that renews itself every second as it rushes in ecstasy to the lake.”

The author’s style is often poetic, although at times overintense. A “macédoine” of travelogue, history, geography, memories, anecdotes laced with humour and poignancy, legends and frequent encounters with the locals, or returning emigrants, all combine to create a vivid impression of a beautiful, remote, complex land. Admittedly, the detail tends to be so fragmented that the reader needs to consult Wikipedia and some good maps to gain a coherent sense of the overall chronology and geography. Yet the author succeeds in generating empathy for migrants, rage against regimes which needlessly impose pointless , cruel restrictions, a heightened awareness of cultures outside our own – and above all, the desire to visit the area.

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