Sunser over the famous St John church at Kaneo in Ohrid, by lake Ohrid in Macedonia in the Balkans in Eastern Europe
The Church of St John at Kaneo, overlooking Lake Ohrid in North Macedonia © Getty

“We hold in our energy system people we have never met,” Kapka Kassabova writes by way of explaining why she has focused her most recent book on two lakes in the Balkans, an often forgotten corner of the world.

In To The Lake — part memoir, part travelogue — Kassabova circumnavigates two southeastern European lakes that straddle the modern-day borders between Albania, North Macedonia and Greece. She meets an ordinary but extraordinary array of lacustrine characters who unravel the region’s history, with its long periods of coexistence and mutual respect that were interrupted by feudal spasms of violence and mass emigration.

Kassabova, a Bulgarian who lives in the Scottish Highlands, went in search of her family history, which in the 20th century alone was shaped by five wars. What she found was a more universal story: that despite prevalent conceptions of Balkan nationalism, identity is more nuanced for all the region’s multi-ethnic and multi-confessional residents, who have intermarried and lived among one another. “The local is inseparable from the global,” she writes.

Her quest takes her first to Ohrid, the most important city on Lake Ohrid, in search of traces of her mother’s family, which was divided by war and decades of communist rule between the cobbled lakeside town and Sofia, the Bulgarian capital. The triple border matrix as a concept is similar to Kassabova’s previous book Border, which was about where the Greek, Bulgarian and Turkish borders intersect.

Kassabova travels around the periphery of Lake Ohrid and then Lake Prespa. As she journeyed, she sought a deeper understanding of a part of the world that has for hundreds of years been fought over and settled by a diverse and intermingled array of confessions and ethnicities — ancient Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, Bulgarians — and then later split between socialist Yugoslavia, communist Albania and capitalist (sometimes militarist) Greece.

Ohrid is in North Macedonia, “a small, vulnerable country whose identity was still a work in progress” and which at the time of her visit had been in a decades-long dispute with Greece about its official name. Both lakes, and the mountains surrounding them, were part of Albania’s iron border during the tyrannical communist reign of Enver Hoxha.

Shortly after Kassabova’s visit, the prime ministers of Greece and what became North Macedonia gathered on the shores of the Lake Prespa to sign a deal on the emergent nation’s name. It was a rare bright spot in a region trapped “in a culture war a thousand years old”. The deal, long-anticipated, could still be undone.

The author marvels at the age of the lake, which may be up to 3m years old, and the “confluence of powerful civilisational forces” that have shaped it. She visits a thousand-year-old monastery, climbs the mountains where tens of thousands met their deaths during a succession of wars in the 20th century and searches the rocky cave dwellings of medieval monks. She deftly draws on reports from writers and observers who have gone before her — the likes of Ottoman chronicler Evliya Celebi and British adventurers Edward Lear, Edith Durham and Rebecca West — to illustrate the unchanging nature of the lakes.

Kassabova’s calling as a poet is evident in short turns of phrase dense with meaning, and in her propensity to feel the weight of all symbols, especially the supernatural ones. Sometimes the book moves slowly, like the lives of the characters who populate it, but ultimately it is worth it for the meditations on family, legacy, war and identity, delivered as short, sharp revelations. Equally important is the writer’s compassion. Her patience, language skills and her ties to the region enable her to avoid the paternalism, clichés and judgment that characterise the writings of so many of those who came before her.

Kassabova is the fourth in a row in her maternal line to emigrate, moving first to New Zealand and later to Scotland. She dedicates the book to her mother and to “the children of exiles and refugees everywhere”. Her message will resonate with all readers who have sought to connect with their ancestors for clues about their own personalities.

To the Lake is an exquisitely written rallying cry to embrace the notion that the people of the Balkans — and indeed humanity as a whole — have more in common than what divides them, despite generations of strife suggesting otherwise. Reflecting on how we continue to witness conflicts of a civil and fratricidal nature today, Kassabova warns that “unless we become aware of how we carry our own legacies, we too may become unwitting agents of destruction”.

To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace, by Kapka Kassabova, Granta, RRP£14.99, 382 pages

Valerie Hopkins is the FT’s south-east Europe correspondent

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