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.