wed 19/06/2024

Kapka Kassabova: To the Lake review - Macedonia's lacustrine heart | reviews, news & interviews

Kapka Kassabova: To the Lake review - Macedonia's lacustrine heart

Kapka Kassabova: To the Lake review - Macedonia's lacustrine heart

An urgent, rich exploration of one of Eurasia's most complex corners

Kapka KassabovaPhoto by © TD

To the Lake, Kassabova titles this book, but the journey it unfolds tells of not one ancient lake but two: “twins” Ohrid and Prespa, the Lake of Light and the Vale of Snow; these siblings feed each other’s waters through underground streams (the only "subterranean communication system" of its kind in Eurasia).

Meanwhile, above, the waters sit “embedded diamond-like in the mountain folds of Western Macedonia and eastern Albania” in a region that was, once upon a time, “the nerve centre of the Balkans”. 

The singular of Kassabova’s title might points us towards the fact that her narrative is less a travelogue – the prepositional tug towards an endstopped destination – and more a broader investigation into the meanings, memories and politics of this lacustrine geography. Kassabova posits the existence of a “lacustrine element” into whose “generative depths” its people and their descendants are ineluctably pulled and turned. “Each time I went abroad, I’d start dreaming of the Lake”, as Trena, great-granddaughter of the first Ohrid woman to swim openly in the lake in her swimsuit, tells Kassabova. “It’s in my blood. If I had a thousand lives, I’d still choose the Lake.” Many of the lake-dwellers Kassabova meets leave its side, but it’s not long before they give in to the urge to return: “the lake is inside me,” artist-jeweller Marta confides. 

To the Lake by Kapka Kassabova

Kassabova herself has returned for similar motives. She captions the text with an epigraph from Henry David Thoreau: “A lake … is earth’s eye, looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” Seeking to understand her past, she feels the irresistible promise of the lake, its “compelling aura”, led by her hope that, by tracing her own legacy of uprootedness, which follows from her maternal, Ohridian grandmother, she might resolve an inheritance of longing, pain, shifting identity, and loss. She writes of Anastassia: “Somewhere inside her was an abyss that could not be filled. It seemed to have its origin in Macedonia and the Lake. It’s as if she was more than one person, a whole nation of souls, a clamorous hinterland of back-story.” With a poet’s sensitivity,  Kassabova meets with and tells the stories of the vividly varied cast of people who inhabit this fraught corner between North Macedonia, Albania and Greece, mining their conversations to explore the experience of “identity as tyranny”.  Today, the town of Ohrid lies in North Macedonia, but throughout its history it has been claimed by the Byzantines, the Serbs, the Bulgarians, the Greeks and the Ottomans; its land its “tattooed” with the memories of conflict imposed by warring nationalisms and authoritarian ideologies. 

In the midst of this unsteady syncretism, the otherworldly lakes represent something complete and redemptive. “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…” Where the Balkans are so frequently made an archetype of easy fragmentation (Kassabova reminds us that the verb “Balkanize”, coined in 1918, means “‘to divide a region or body into smaller, mutually hostile states or groups”’), the lakes create “an exhilaration of wholeness” despite the best attempts of each nation’s maps, none of them including “the lake territory next door”.

The compelling blend of memoir, history and travelogue into which these ideas are turned is a poignant, powerful argument to overcome our obsession with difference. The book’s architecture seamlessly weaves its multiple perspectives, gathered from distant family members, monks, fishermen, widows, outsiders and survivors (notably, Bashir Arapi, one of sixteen people to escape Hoxha’s Albanian dictatorship by crossing the lake in a boat assembled from a bag and made without nails in a basement). Together, they form a haunting and elegant whole with a vehement message at its core: “Lake and mountain were one. The world, when left alone, was one.”


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