“You can’t enter the same river twice,” the classic aphorism states, but Kapka Kassabova’s narrative reportage book To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace argues the contrary. In her latest work, we can never really escape the same body of water — the eponymous conjoined twin lakes, Ohrid and Prespa, who sustain one another through a network of subterranean streams. These ideas of connection and endurance drive the author’s preoccupations: intergenerational trauma, the persistence of the past, and the arbitrariness of borders.
To the Lake mirrors her previous narrative reportage, Border (2017), in which she travelled to the liminal zones between Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece, three nations that were once united in the historical region Thrace. Like its predecessor, To the Lake is emphatically lyrical, introspective, and melancholic.
Kassabova starts by tracing her grandmother’s history back to Ohrid, a North Macedonian town on the lake of the same name. Born in Bulgaria, emigrating with her family to New Zealand, and settling as an adult in the Scottish Highlands, Kassabova grapples with a personal geography that is pockmarked by loss, emigration, and questions of heritage and belonging. Traversing the lake region over land and water, she encounters distant cousins, jobless men, widows, descendants of Sufi sheiks, migrants, and artists whose stories echo her family’s:
“These were the children of the Village of Immigrants. The doctors, architects and economists who had studied abroad in the earlier twentieth century had stayed abroad too, and there had never been an economic incentive to return, only an emotional one.”
The same questions of belonging are played out in the political field, evidenced by the conflict over North Macedonia’s new name, or the ornate, grotesquely expensive statues of ancient figures in the capital of Skopje — attempts to make sole claims to a shared past. Assessing one man’s dubious ancestral claims, Kassabova notes:
“It was hard work, sifting fantasy from reality. [...] he was vulnerable to political manipulation like everybody else here, where the poison of ‘antiquisation’ and other metastases of ethno-racial identity propaganda from both the Albanian and the Macedonian sides had invaded people’s minds.”
Unable to provide any answers to these thorny questions, she asks us instead to empathise with the beliefs, prejudices, and anxieties of people on all sides of the border. Groups are often antagonists on paper and in policy, while individuals appear to be grasping at justifications for their separation. Kassabova writes with an artist’s admiration for landscape and a journalist’s capacity for uncovering untold stories, though the people she meets appear to give them up easily as if they’d been waiting for someone to ask. She prioritises personal histories over reductive, simplifying narratives, presenting the reader with an array of character studies: Clement, who tends to the Black Madonna at a lakeside monastery; Bashir Arapi, one of 16 people who escaped Albania’s dictatorship by crossing the lake in a handmade boat at night, which they built without nails in total secrecy; or an unnamed mother who begs Kassabova to marry her son and take him back to the West.
To the Lake honours the “polyphonic, sometimes cacophonous, diversity” in the region while emphasising the complexity of division among deeply connected people — those who “find it best to be Greek” one day and perhaps Albanian the next, depending on the powers in control. Kassabova writes with a razor-sharp critical eye and utter rejection of those simultaneously romanticising and patronising tendencies of the West (“A curiously irradiating effect that hasn’t worn off with time”).
Between villages, journeys a few dozen kilometres long stretch into hours of driving on bleak pot-holed roads. Her routes are logistically preposterous — on boats, Kassabova comes within metres of a neighbouring country, just to be shut out by an invisible border and take the longer way on land. These allegories convey the wider cultural and political schisms with a voice that is both evocative and sincere. In the end, Ohrid and Prespa emerge as a singular body of water nurturing a continuous, unbroken landscape.
“The lake was open, boundless. It was impossible to tell where each of the three countries began or ended, or why for pity’s sake it had been necessary to partition one lake into three nationalities. [...] Pelicans, ducks, and geese bobbed on the water. Only the humans were self-imprisoned behind invisible lines.”