Border- a journey to the edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova

Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe

The border area west of the Black Sea between Bulgaria, where the author Kapka Kassabova grew up under a communist regime, with Turkey and Greece to the south, is a mystery to most people. Situated on the edge of Europe, it has been fated to lie on the edge of a succession of empires: Greek, Ottoman and Soviet, suffering continual invasion and domination, with enforced transfers of Greeks into Turkey and vice versa, now replaced by the stream of refugees from ravaged areas like Syria, trying to reach Germany or the UK by a backdoor remote mountainous route. Since her own family was forced out as economic migrants, I think during the messy collapse of communism, travelling as far afield as New Zealand, she displays a strong empathy for migrants of all kinds.
As a child, the author resented the restrictions which prevented her from crossing the border near her Black Sea holiday resort into nearby Turkey. She was intrigued by the East Germans known by the locals as “sandals”, who crept off into the forested granite hills of Strandja in the hope of finding a way round the electrified barbed wire border fence, only to be betrayed by shepherds or shot by border guards.

Thirty years later, nostalgia for the countryside brought her back, to stay in a succession of places, starting with the “The Village in the Valley”, presumably unnamed to preserve people’s privacy, now decimated by the mass population exit “in the brutal freefall of 1990s post-Communism”, completing the effects of an earlier flight of Greek-speaking people in exchange for Bulgarian refugees from Turkey in what the author calls “the merry-go-round of exchange of population”. Although this is fascinating, I was frequently left unclear about the sequence of events.

The lack of clarity, combined with frequent digression into anecdotes and folktales, and a picaresque map which omits most place-names to focus on specific features of her stories such as “The Spring of the White-Legged Maiden” or “Felix’s Cliff”, create an avoidable confusion which is my main criticism of the book.

The compensation, is the creation of a kind of magical, haunting quality in which we learn say, about “agiasma”, Greek for the holy springs, at one of which the author was taken to watch the fire-walkers, still keeping alive the tradition of fire worship.

Sometimes the supernatural “goes over the top” for my taste, as in the convoluted tale of the “Tomb of Basket”, the excavation of which was thwarted by terrifying night-time visions of “three-dimensional spectral projections” coming out of the rock to approach the terrified observers “who got the hell out of there”.

More prosaic is the anecdote of the Turkish “chesma” or roadside fountain where she meets a shady character, whom she realises too late must have developed his secluded rural “gangster-baroque” hideaway on the proceeds of spying and wheeler-dealing for the former Stasi-like State Security.

I was intrigued by the C6 rock monastery of Saint Nicholas, protected from further vandalism by a self-appointed, unpaid guard who turns out to be not only a despised gypsy but a Muslim, who observes, “Church or mosque, it’s all the same. A place of God and silence. You have to treat it with respect”. We are reminded that the reason for persecuting the gypsies over the centuries was that, in roaming around with their horses, they avoided paying tax. Hence the failed decree to ban gypsy acrobats from having horses.

Then there was her stay in “The Village where you lived for ever” in the Rhodope Mountains inhabited by the Pomaks. Descendants of long-ago converts to Islam and therefore persecuted as a kind of “fifth column” in Bulgaria, despite their Slavic or ethnic Bulgar origin, at various times having both Christianity and name changes forced upon them. Near here is “The Judgement” border cliff from which “inconvenient people have been pushed into the mist since the beginning of people”. I was moved by the tale of the Czechs trying to escape from Communism who left some money for the lunch they stole from a shepherd. His dilemma was whether to turn a blind eye and risk being punished for failing a test of his loyalty, or to report the theft and be commended. Having chosen the latter, he was haunted for the rest of a life. Or did the Czechs arrive in Greece safely, if hungry?
Kapka Kassabova has an appealing honesty, even if sometimes verging on neurosis. When it was time to move on from “the Village in the Valley” she writes: “I had worried that I was at heart a deracinated, drifting person, despite my delusion or being at home everywhere. That although I no longer belonged here, in the broken country of my youth, it was where I secretly belonged the most. That I fancied myself as an observer, but even after twenty years away, I was still a participant and always would be. That I had no distance from anything and cared too much about the doomed. That the Village in the Valley felt like paradise but might be purgatory. That I couldn’t tell the difference. That I felt tainted , yet full of love for this plundered place”.

In selecting points for this review, I appreciate once again the book’s strong sense of place and social history. This is made all the more poignant by the fact that, if inspired to visit this area, we would lack the knowledge and access to local guides to experience it as the author has. Also, how long can its character survive as people die out in the “villages of dingy, inscrutable beauty” while the current Turkish regime attacks the southern slopes of Strandja “like a wrecking ball” with gigantic quarries and cement works, and a coastal nuclear plant, all in the name of progress.

India by Patrick French: Nation, Wealth and Society

Although published in 2011, before the rise of Hindu nationalism under President Modi and resultant surge in the persecution of Muslims which Patrick French could not foresee, this book remains worth reading as a clear, informative and wide-ranging introduction to a fascinating and complex country.

With many anecdotes, he creates a strong, authentic sense of place, starting with the old man in his apricot orchard, recalling how when Nehru visited the newly independent northern border region of Ladakh, there were no roads, so he had to land by plane, something the locals had never seen before, so they simply put their hands together and prayed to it. At the other end of the scale are the computer whizz kid Indian graduates who have made such a contribution to Silicon Valley in the US, some claiming that their early grounding in abstract Hindu philosophy has helped them to make “mental leaps in the virtual world”.

Commencing with a useful potted history of the creation in 1947 of what was initially meant to be a secular democracy, and an explanation of the complex politics, with MPs now increasingly determined by family links, French moves on to the early problems caused by a well-intentioned but over-bureaucratic socialist system of central planning, with enterprise often stifled by the need to obtain permits to import or manufacture products.

The benefits of the subsequent liberalisation have “lifted large numbers out of extreme poverty” but the rise in population has left about the same number of poor people. There seems to be a widening gap: “By 2008 four of the eight richest people alive were Indian”, there is a “dynamic middle class, but “people….still die, finding that eating rats or ground mango kernels does not save them from starvation”.

The issue of caste in all its complex degrees of exclusion runs through the text: the Chuhras who have had to do “hereditary work sweeping, cleaning, dealing with dead animals…” then scraping up the leftover food after weddings, the “joothan” to boil and store for late. In the unconscious insensitivity of his much vaunted personal sacrifice, Gandhi wished to be reborn an untouchable “to share their sorrow, sufferings and the affronts levelled at them”. With the perhaps questionable observation that “compassion is not a Hindu concept” French describes the plight of a “Dalit” (low caste) worker who, for seeking to leave his job with an unpaid debt, was fitted with heavy metal fetters, forcing him to spend years breaking stones in a quarry, until he was saved by some activists during a political campaign.

French covers relations with Pakistan and the position of Indian Muslims, who are surprisingly almost as numerous as Pakistanis. They are described by one of their own leaders as the most backward community in India “economically, educationally and socially”, largely because the most disadvantaged were left behind in the 1947 Partition. Yet, this self-same leader defended the persistence of archaic Muslim codes in India which supported his personal power, even at the cost of feeding resentment among conservative Hindus that they could not enjoy similar “separatist privilege”.

Occasionally the book gets bogged down too long in one issue, and the final chapter seems a somewhat rushed catch-all for all the outstanding points the author wanted to include, but overall this is highly recommended.

“Travellers in the third Reich” by Julia Boyd: wonderland through the looking glass

Only months after the end of World War One, travel brochures were urging American tourists to visit Germany, and many British travellers needed little encouragement to holiday in a country they had been brought up to admire with “its cathedrals.. castles…art treasures..Bach, Beethoven and Wagner.” Since the trench warfare had mostly taken place beyond its borders, German towns were in the main intact, and the landscape “still beautiful and largely unscathed”.

Paperback

Visitors from abroad were initially surprised by the “civility” and friendliness of the German people: “how can they, outwardly at least, bear so little grudge against the people who have beaten them?” When a sense of betrayal set in, largely against “the Kaiser, their politicians and generals and especially… the Treaty of Versailles” foreign observers often felt some sympathy over its harsh and humiliating terms, likely to prove counterproductive in the longer term, as proved to be the case with the rampant inflation, and the rapid rise of “the chief agitator…a man of low origin”, namely Adolf Hitler.

Even those made incredulous, scornful or uneasy over the Führer’s overwrought rants and grandiose staged appearances and the rapturous mass hysteria which they generated, were impressed by the apparent rapid achievements of his regime, harnessing the innate German efficiency and industry to regenerate the country. Towns were conspicuously clean and well-kept, the Youth Movement encouraged team spirit and a healthy love of nature in the rising generation, and transport was transformed by the construction of at first underused “autobahns” far in advance of say, the British motorway system.

Others were quick to see the potential danger of the underlying fascist nationalism, in some ways hard to distinguish from the authoritarian communism to which it was fiercely opposed – until the brief notorious pact with Russia when it suited the Nazis. Some travellers were blind to the growing persecution of the Jewish population, perhaps in part because anti-Semitism was quite strong in their home countries at the time, but as laws were passed to deprive Jews progressively of their jobs and rights, anger and revulsion against Hitler’s government took root.

Some like the French author Jacques Chardonne were carried away by an utterly distorted view of the “moral beauty” of German society: “courage, will, self-denial, decency and various forms of health”. He even had a romantic view of the SS as “militant monks…. they do not seem to feel sorrow, or fear, or hunger or desire: they are the angels of war come down for a moment from the heaven of Niflheim (in Norse mythology) to help people to perform a task that is too difficult for them”. More pragmatic visitors could see how, by late 1941, physical conditions for ordinary Germans had often deteriorated to the point of making life not worth living.

Yet right to the outbreak of war, people who should have known better failed to take a stand. Even an elderly Lloyd George, flattered during a meeting by Hitler’s praise for his statesmanship in World War One, returned home to shower him with fulsome praise: “a magnetic, dynamic personality…the George Washington of Germany who won independence from his country’s oppressors, while remaining unquestionably a man of peace”. Also, despite avoiding the risk of sitting with Hitler in the Wagner box at the Bayreuth Festival, the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham could not resist the temptation to show off his new London Philharmonic Orchestra in Germany, all expenses paid, as the price of a PR campaign by the Germans to gain acceptance.

This meticulously researched and very readable book creates a vivid sense of life in Germany in the two decades between the World Wars, giving great insight into the causes and effects of the fateful Third Reich. Since it can be hard to keep track of the vast and varied cast of letter and diary writers, it is worth referring to the glossary of characters supplied at the back.

The final brief chapters covering the war itself inevitably rely heavily on the British women who happen to have married Germans. One describes the ludicrous yet poignant irony of an old British friend “dropping by” on his way to “take Kiel” at the end of the war.

“Cheri” by Colette: a question of age.

Cheri (Vintage Classics) by [Colette]

Although I read this in French, I bought the English version featured here to help me cope with some of the more obscure passages in the original French, and as a translation it captures the spirit of the classic novel.

With her wry wit, strong sense of place, concise, vivid descriptions and minute dissection of her characters’ shifting emotions, Colette was a talented writer, even if her novels now seem dated, perhaps in particular this novel set in the Paris of the idle rich around 1900. Too handsome for his own good, both neglected and indulged from birth by his ghastly mother Charlotte, a courtesan who has done well for herself, Chéri (aka Fred!) has for six years been the lover of her rival and friend of a sort, the beautiful, high class “tart with a heart”, Léa, twenty-four years his senior. So what will happen when Charlotte marries him off to a “suitable” young girl? Does Chérie love Léa mainly as the caring mother he never had? Does Léa love Chérie as a means of keeping at bay the physical decline into old age which she does not want to face? Is this the tragedy of two people who, beneath all the banter and bickering, have a genuine love for each other, more than just intensely physical, yet the great difference in their ages makes it impossible for them to make a permanent life together?

I found this quite hard to read in the original French, because of the old-fashioned vocabulary relating to the past culture and fashions of the day, so had to resort to an English translation to check on a few points. For instance, “pneumatiques” turned out to be the “petits bleus” telegrams sent round Paris in metal tubes (via the sewers!).

Apart from Léa and the unfortunate young wife Edmée, the characters are fairly unappealing, not least the petulant, capricious Chéri, clearly unfulfilled, bored and desperately in need of some useful occupation. The dialogues are often quite funny, and the emotionally charged climax in which Léa and Chéri finally express themselves honestly is powerful and revealing, but there is a shallowness to their lives which is rather depressing. Since Colette’s own life was clearly often driven by strong physical passions, I have probably not interpreted the book in the way she had in mind.

An intriguing footnote is that Colette herself had an affair in her late forties with a teenage step-son, I believe after having written this book which perhaps enacts a long-held personal fantasy. This relationship apparently inspired “Le Blé en Herbe, which I would recommend more. The work by Colette which I most admire is the semi-autobiographical, “La Naissance du Jour”.

“Emma”: An Elton Curate’s egg – review of 2020 film adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel

Emma (DVD) [2020]

There may be a case for a twenty-first century take on Jane Austen’s classic “Emma”, already successfully filmed – this tale of an indulged young woman who causes pain with her unwise match-making and spiky wit, until given cause to question her own judgement.

I understand that the American director Autumn de Wilde is primarily known as a photographer, as is very evident in this film, perhaps contributing to both its main strengths and its weaknesses. The approach adopted in this adaptation is a mixture of almost jokey farce, and a visual feast of elaborate, immaculate, perfectly fitting costumes against a background of idyllic landscapes, picturesque Cotswold-style villages and freshly painted grand interiors with marble statues which seem more likely to be found in the homes of aristocrats, well beyond the means of country gentry like Emma’s father or her brother-in-law Mr Knightley. A line of giggling schoolgirls in distinctive red capes reminiscent of the very different “Handmaid’s Tale” periodically scamper across the screen.

The direction seems rather “wooden” and contrived at times, most of the characters presented as caricatures, like the obsequious local parson Mr Elton, or two-dimensional, so that one does not much care what happens to any of them. Emma has the appearance of a beautiful alien, lacking in expression apart from an occasional malicious glitter of the eye. I agree with critics who have questioned the casting: Johnny Flynn seems more suited to the role of the charming if deceptive Frank Churchill rather than the principled, serious-minded Mr. Knightley, while Callum Turner, who plays the former, looks as if he would have been more at ease in some modern-day urban drama.

The soundtrack is intrusively loud, switching incongruously between classical-style music I believe composed for the film, and folksongs, which I particularly enjoyed, although they do not always seem sufficiently related to the scenes they accompany.

I’m also unsure about the need to add a “period” i.e. American full stop to the title: “Emma.” apparently to indicate that it is a “period piece”!

I went with low expectations, have heard the film slated in a Radio 4 review, which may have been a bit harsh, plus there were only two other couples in the cinema audience, but it was moderately entertaining, even if not quite doing Jane Austen justice.

“Un brillant avenir” by Catherine Cusset: “bitter sweet”

Un brillant avenir (Folio t. 5023) (French Edition) by [Cusset, Catherine]

As an opening hook, the portrayal of Helen, an elderly woman frustrated by her husband’s dementia but traumatised by his sudden death and apparent suicide, may not seem at all compelling. It turns out to be a family saga, with the focus on Helen, née Elena in post-war Communist Romania and destined to marry Jacob, a handsome young Jewish man, in the teeth of the ingrained anti-semitism of Ceaușescu’s bigoted, inward-looking regime, which drives her to seek emigration first to Israel and then the United States to obtain a better future for her adored only son, Alexandru.

Written in a clear and simple style, with a strong focus on the minutiae of daily life, this novel feels very authentic, but too often also banal, even boring. This contrasts with the complexity resulting from the decision to alternate chapters back and forth in time, which proves a little disjointed and confusing at times, giving the reader the benefit of additional insight into events, but at the cost of destroying some of the potential for dramatic tension.

Although Helen is not a particularly likeable character, given to emotional, hysterical, manipulative behaviour, the author develops a detailed character study which enables one to empathise with her at many points in the story and to understand the forces which have shaped her. The same applies to her French daughter-in-law Marie, much more laid back and unconsciously thoughtless with a sense of entitlement born of a more relaxed and free upbringing. The tension between the two women and the relationship which they eventually achieve weaves a strong thread through the narrative.

For me, this reads like a series of short stories based on the same characters, which gradually caught my interest through a few striking incidents. For instance, there is the irony in how, having battled and plotted to get married, Helen and Jacob commit the same error as her parents in trying to prevent their son Alexandru’s marriage to Marie, because she is French, so it is assumed will take their son away to a distant land where he will find it harder to realise his “brilliant career”. Then there is the poignant moment when Helen, in the violent grip of labour, waits in a taxi en route for the hospital while her mother takes an inordinate time to appear: it as this point that Helen decides that her adopted mother cannot, as rumour has it, be her birth mother, since the latter would never let her suffer in this way. Another striking scene is when, having taken advantage of Jacob’s Jewishness to escape to Israel, Helen realises that her precious son is destined for a spell in the Israeli army, where her overactive imagination leaves him in no doubt that he will either be killed or maimed. There is also a convincing and moving portrayal of widowhood.

The novel seems to contain “jewels” of insight and observation, together with some realistic experiences, set in a somewhat tedious paste.

“L’Insoumise de Gaza” by Asmaa Alghoul & Sélim Nassib: “When there’s no choice but to rebel”

L'Insoumise de Gaza (Documents, Actualités, Société) (French Edition) by [Nassib, Sélim, Alghoul, Asmaa]

The eldest of nine, Asmaa Alghoul grew up in the Gaza refugee camp of Rafah where her grandparents had fled after their land was taken by the Israelis. I found it hard to “place” her family; although, as a refugee, she received handouts at school, her father was clearly educated, at times holding down a professional post abroad and teaching at a Gaza university, while her uncles were much more fundamentally religious, supporters of Hamas, some holding quite senior posts. Encouraged to ask questions by her relatively broad-minded father but chastised by the uncles for her lack of piety, by her mother for not doing her homework and her teacher for misbehaving at school, a combination of these factors must have engendered her unusually stubborn, resilient and persistent stance, a prerequisite for a female journalist in the tough, chauvinist environment of the Gaza strip.
Having left an Islamic university because it was too strict, and a less academic, more secular one when her course folded through lack of students, Asmaa quickly found work writing for a newspaper about the plight of Gaza and Palestinian women’s rights, going on to win a succession of international prizes for the courage and quality of her work.

She demonstrates in quite an extreme form the dilemma of the woman who wants to combine marriage and motherhood with a career which involves great commitment flexibility, even danger in the sense of risking arrest and torture for attending a demonstration, or death when trying to cover an Israeli attack. She tends to let her “heart rule her head” in choosing husbands, only to find them to be not as open-minded as she thought. Perhaps she is a little blinkered when it comes to admitting her own fault in the failure of a relationship. She certainly seems to have suffered post-natal depression after the birth of her son, both her children being largely brought up by her own mother, it seems.

She gives a vivid impression of life in the Gaza strip, surprising me at first with her “plague on all your houses” attitude to the various opposing groups who confine the inhabitants in a vice. As a child she refused a sweet from a well-meaning Israeli soldier, “because it contained poison”. Some of her earliest memories were of Israeli soldiers attacking with stones and teargas the house of her extended family, beating her uncles for their connections with Hamas. Years later she was to tell a Jewish American lecturer at Columbia that he was the first Israeli to teach her something.

Yet she also condemns the corruption of Fatah and the Palestinian Organisation, claiming that they pocketed large sums sent by naïve European and American groups to help the Palestinians. One of their number, she claims, even supplied the concrete to build the infamous wall protecting Israel.

Dispelling my belief that Hamas was at least democratically elected to represent Gaza, she describes how they manipulated the system to get enough votes to win. She also describes their repressive fanaticism, driven by control freakery rather than based on any doctrine, in which a woman is continually harassed and manhandled for failing to cover her hair completely with a headscarf, arrested for sitting on the beach fully clad, but with her clothing moulded to her body after bathing in the sea, or tortured for attending a demonstration.

As is no doubt vital for one’s sanity and endurance, there is much humour in the book, as when she manages to flout the taboo on cycling, using the company of some European wars waged by the Israelis in the early C21, culminating in the broken ceasefire of 2014 in which several members of her family were killed, mostly innocent civilians. She writes vividly of her fear of being killed, the sudden and arbitrary nature of death: of her newborn twin nephews, one died and the other survives, but to be haunted by this fact for the rest of his life. Then there is the strange depression which comes in the aftermath of bombardment when all tension is abruptly removed and one can relax. Although she appreciates that all wars must end in peace between enemies, so sees the futility of retaliation, she describes the urge to do so “because our blood is not as cheap as you think”.

No one escapes her fearless, pithy, no-holds-barred analysis, so it is obvious why she has attracted such fierce attacks in return. “What a region!” she writes, in which Islamic State kills people indiscriminately in the name of a perverted interpretation of Islam, whereas Israel does so in the name of its Promised Land. She ends this book on a positive, defiant note but the prospect seems bleak in reality.

Some prior knowledge is needed to appreciate this book fully, although I suppose it could equally well inspire a reader to go away and gen themselves up on an injustice which is allowed to persist through widespread indifference compounded by ignorance.