One of Kassabova’s most compelling characters is a “stubby weather-beaten” old boatman, Tanas, whose tragic tale reminds us how excruciating life in Hoxha’s Albania was from the late 1940s until 1990. Tanas’s parents were both Macedonians who made their home on the lake in Pogradec, a town just inside Albania, in the late 1930s, when one could still cross the border with ease. After the Second World War, to ingratiate himself with the new communist authorities, Tanas’s father joined Enver Hoxha’s secret police, the Sigurimi. Appalled by the emerging Orwellian policies he saw as an insider, he fled the country while it was just still possible. He left his wife and two young children in Pogradec but before long as “enemies of the people” by association, they were moved to a concentration camp in Berat, in the freezing centre of Albania. As in all her stories, Kassabova strikes the perfect balance in exposing how the wheel of history, especially unforgiving in the Balkans, crushes great human potential but is not always able to extinguish it.
Nor do we meet any of the large cast of characters, alive or dead, long enough to get to know them; and for what is billed as a personal journey, Kassabova is curiously reticent about revealing much about herself. But she is too good a writer not to allow us many individual pleasures along the way. Nor is she afraid to speculate on the psychology of place. She reminds us that water is a symbol of the unconscious — so that it is natural for the lake to be full of dreams and memories for her. And any writer who uses the marvellous word ‘lacustrine’ — ‘of the lake’ — deserves to be celebrated.
But it is to Kassabova’s credit that far from being heavy or depressing, her book is a delight, exquisitely written and brimming with compassion. Some of her stories seem almost surreal: the child reported to the authorities in Communist Albania for accepting capitalist chewing gum from Greek visitors; or the family who built their own boat, held together with nylon stockings, to escape across the lake from Albania to Yugoslavia.
A characteristic of modern travel writing is a patchwork, broken-mirror approach to form: short, lapidary encounters; the micro-patterning of images and tales and meditations – a tendency attributable to modernism as much as to the impressionistic, stop-start nature of any journey. It was partly the compound facets of Border that accounted for its miraculous glimmer. To the Lake is more languid and more patient, as fluid and inexorable as the underground watercourses that connect the two lakes. The book’s achievement, likewise, is to reconcile, thrillingly, what those twin bodies of water represent to Kassabova: the unconscious and the conscious; the darkness of history and the radiance of life and love.
Neatly adhering to rules of three, Kassabova’s well-researched and personal book contains three strands: vivid travelogue, ancestral memoir and historical analysis. Tracing the contours of the lakes by boat, foot and car, each of the lyrical chapters contains lucid stories of the shores’ inhabitants, whose tales of persecution and resistance resemble those of her own family. On these ancestral elements, Kassabova is excellent, balancing reverence and a sincere reckoning with the past. Growing up, Ohrid was synonymous with her grandmother, Anastassia, who lived between Ohrid and Sofia and, like the lake itself, is cast as an iridescent, warm figure.
Kassabova captures that profound antiquity in an image of enchanting beauty, of the two lakes seen from above as “eyes in an ancient face”, suggesting the glimpses that the lakes offer into a long-submerged past. As Wordsworth once put it: “A lake carries you into recesses of feeling otherwise impenetrable.” Kassabova purports to carry you To The Lake, but penetrates much, much deeper into the seismic psyche of the Balkans.
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”.