I read Street Without a Name by Kassabova two years ago and it was my first book by a Bulgarian author. After enjoying it immensely as soon as I had the chance I bought Border. But it took me some time to get to reading it. As it often happens, the reason for it was as shallow as they get: in the edition, I own the print is extremely small. And I must with heavy heart admit I am not getting younger and my eyes get tired with small print. As a result my mind subconsciously shies away from books where it noticed the small print. Once I realized it I try not to buy them, but I wanted to have this book on paper, one of those first-world problems.
Border was published almost a decade after Street Without a Name and it is quite obvious that we are dealing with a somewhat changed author. Her narration is a lot more lyrical and subdued, yet full of in-depth observations.
This time she explores, as the title indicates, the borders of Bulgaria. Stating with the border with Turkey at the seaside, then going deeper into the forests of Strandja. She then moves along the Turkish border reaching the border with Greece and then all the way to North Macedonia. All the time she remains in the border zone, sometimes on the Bulgarian side, sometimes on the other side. In her tale, the borders are shown in all their aspects: transcendence, spirituality, but also the hard practicalities of politics and physicality.
She takes her time in exploring the places she goes to, gives the stories and tales time to develop. Gets to know the people living on the borders, those drawn to them, but also those who have been there for generations. Her tale captures the eerie atmosphere of this transitional space, where one thing ends and another has not really started just yet. She explores what it means to live in this undefined space and how in turn it defines its inhabitants, but also transient guests like her.
During her travels, she dives into the past when the border was qual to Iron Curtain and people wanted to escape out of Bulgaria, but then she deftly contrasts it with the movement in the opposite direction that she can now observe first hand. Just as once people couldn’t wait to be out of Bulgaria and the Soviet bloc and were ready to risk their lives for it, now people risk everything only to get in.
When she crosses the border she discovers another perspective. She gets to understand the ties between people now separated by national borders, but also the animosities between the nations. We take it for granted now, but national states are a 19th-century invention and one that has caused more than enough wars. The legacy of that invention is the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people in those border areas. Once peacefully coexisting in today’s Bulgaria at some point some of them are defined as strangers by the national rules and either forced to adapt or to leave. We operate all the time in these two levels of reality: the personal stories, where we are all just people able to live side by side; and the political narration where we’re no longer just humans, but we become members of one nation or another, and suddenly our neighbor is no longer our friend.
We also get a bit more transcendent look at the borders as Kassabova observes local rituals. Because border here is not only the one between the countries but also between the real and spiritual, between sanity and madness. Hic sunt dracones.
It is a beautiful multi-faceted book. Kassabova looks at the borders from all angles, she easily jumps between the literal and metaphorical, bringing us along for an amazing journey. It is a book that needs time, you have to fall into the rhythm of her journey, slow down if she stays somewhere for a few weeks, as if enchanted or maybe cursed. Only to run like crazy when her mind gives in to the fear. Take your time with it and you will be well rewarded. As much fun as I had with Street Without a Name this is a lot more mature book, operating on a completely different level. One that shows us things about a specific region, but also can distill the observation into a great insight about our current world.