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Bulgarian rhapsody: Garth Cartwright on the return of Kapka Kassabova

Bucharest, Sofia, Edinburgh, Mt Roskill….An essay by traveler Garth Cartwright on another exile, Kapka Kassabova, on the occasion of her acclaimed new book.

It’s December 1992 and I’ve just got off the bus from Bucharest, Romania, to Sofia, Bulgaria. Bucharest lay in ruins due to the late dictator Ceausescu’s vision of demolishing the historic city centre and remodelling it along North Korean lines. He got his Palace Of The People built – the world’s largest single building after The Pentagon – but little else before a firing squad delivered deft architectural criticism.

Thus Bucharest is covered in rubble and plagued by packs of stray dogs. Yet it has a raw energy that suggests a kind of post-apocalyptic resistance: the Romanians had not just risen up against the Stalinists, they were hungry to create a new society. Sofia, in contrast, was deathly quiet. It too had many brutalist buildings in poor states of repair but the streets appeared largely empty and a sense of despondency hung in the freezing air.

Little did I know that a few months before my arrival the Kassabova family had emigrated from Sofia to New Zealand. Perhaps they had, as the saying goes, turned off the lights when they left. Poor, battered Sofia lacked energy, enthusiasm and electricity: later I’d learn how electricity shortages would, at times, black out entire neighbourhoods. Communism was over but capitalism had not taken hold in any successful sense and a mournful fugue hung over the city.

Admittedly, winter had begun to bite hard – and winter in the Balkans is fierce – so the lack of people on Sofia’s streets was understandable. But it wasn’t just the cold that kept people indoors; the collapse of communism with its guaranteed wages and foodstuffs had not been replaced by an equitable system and most Bulgarians suffered from a lack of provisions. Kapka Kassabova was 19 in 1992 and her parents, both scientists, had been attempting to get the family (Kapka has a younger sister) out ever since Bulgaria threw off the Soviet yoke in late 1989. That it was New Zealand – a nation literally on the other side of the world – that granted the Kassabova’s entry reflects on both how Aotearoa was hungry for skilled migrants and how reluctant much of the Western world was to welcome new citizens from the former Eastern bloc.

It also reflects on a desire to flee Bulgaria felt by many Bulgarians. Back then only those with highly desirable (and hard to come by) exit visas could do so, Bulgaria’s borders being hard set: they remained unwelcome in Greece and Turkey while Romania and Yugoslavia were both beset with vast problems that would offer no relief to the refugee.

And then there was me. Standing in Sofia’s freezing bus station and wondering what to do. I’d been travelling by now for several weeks – from London to Holland, Belgium, Germany, into East Berlin (where Russian soldiers were still stationed as they waited to be sent home) and Dresden, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and, now, Bulgaria. I’d wanted to visit East Europe since I was old enough to understand there were nations hidden behind what got called “The Iron Curtain” so I’d savoured pretty much every minute since I’d crossed where Checkpoint Charlie had stood. The food might have been wretched and finding anywhere to stay often proved impossible – in Romania I’d slept in empty buildings, paid taxi drivers to let me kip on their floors or simply sat up all night in train stations waiting for the dawn – but to be in eastern lands so long cut off from the West proved intoxicating. The sense of history, ancient and recent, filled my mind, the people were so welcoming, so excited to speak with outsiders and share stories of their lives, and the girls… the world’s most beautiful girls!

What got me interested in Eastern Europe? I’ve no definite answer. There’s no family connection and I’m anything but a linguist. To be honest, it’s likely that reading Herge’s Tintin adventures – often set in fictional East European dictatorships – as a child fired my imagination for a chunk of Europe that appeared locked away from our world. So much so that by the 1980s – by then I was old enough to read the Herald‘s world news page – I would always seek out titbits of information on these strange lands. Here people lived under Soviet rule who were considered enemies of the West. The rulers of these nations were often extremely autocratic. I read that Ceausescu was demolishing Bucharest’s historic heart (ignoring protests from the likes of such capitalist running dogs as Unesco) to remodel it as the ideal communist city; of Turkish-speaking Bulgarians being forced out of Bulgaria and into Turkey in anti-Muslim purges; of Albania being the world’s most isolated state where citizens who showed any enthusiasm for Soviet or Chinese communism (let alone Western capitalism) got packed off to labour camps. I read fiction, too, by the likes of Kundera and Solzenhitsyn and Kadare, inhaling these texts as primers. Alongside my obsessions with the US South and Mexico, it was Eastern Europe that lit my proverbial fire.

The mountainous border region between Bulgaria and Turkey. (Photo: Nedret Benzet)

But Bulgaria, poor, frozen, decrepit Bulgaria (or Sofia, to be more accurate), seemed like a downer after the excitement of Romania. I wandered the city centre for several hours and everything felt more grey than I’d ever experienced before. Stay on? When there was a night bus to Istanbul? So I re-boarded, cursing having paid for a full visa (rather than a simple transit one – Kiwis still needed visas for much of Europe in the early 90s), joining a motley crew of men who all appeared to chainsmoke cheap, strong tobacco as the bus plunged through the Balkan night.

From that initial journey on I kept returning East whenever possible. But not to Bulgaria. Nothing against the Bulgars – who gave us the word “bugger”; the Victorians seeming to believe the locals were particularly enthusiastic practitioners  – but, beyond the cheap ski and beach resorts, I couldn’t think of any real attraction. By now I’d started setting myself up as something of an expert on Balkan music – specifically the music of the Gypsy communities – and this meant regular visits to my beloved Romania and former Yugoslavia (specifically Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia) once the war was over. Bulgaria, as ever, seemed to exist in the shadows of its neighbours.

And then I got an invite to visit Bulgaria in 2003 to interview Jony Iliev, a young Gypsy singer from Kusthendil in southern Bulgaria. Well, that experience set in motion my first book, Princes Amongst Men: Journeys With Gypsy Musicians. By the time I finished researching and writing it I knew Bulgaria pretty well – as “well” that is as a foreign backpacker who doesn’t speak the language can.

Back in New Zealand visiting family in 2006 I kept being told, “There’s a Bulgarian writer living here now”. Well, how ’bout that?

On the border (Photo: Nedret Benzet)

*

I dutifully purchased said writer’s debut novel Reconnaissance, a rather bleak tale concerning a young Bulgarian woman as she backpacks around NZ and engages in many a youth hostel quickie (it’s all existential angst so not one for the 50 Shades readership). At the time I considered it to be one of those autobiographical coming-of-age novels then so popular and, while Kapka Kassabova’s Reconnaissance didn’t dwell much on the state of the Balkans, I sensed the author felt she had swapped a concrete cage for a more verdant one.

The little I then learnt about Kassabova described how she was born in Sofia in 1973, came of age as communism crumbled, migrating with her family to Dunedin in 1992. From a broken, boiling metropolis in the southern Balkans to that chilly bastion of Scottish Protestantism at the end of the world would be a major culture shock for anyone and Kassabova found New Zealand, initially, a difficult place to settle in (especially Dunedin – she soon fled to Wellington). Yet her precocious talent as a writer rapidly established her as both a poet and novelist.

We shared no mutual friends and, as this was before the age of stalking people on social media, no alliance was formed.

A couple of years later, when DJ-ing Balkan music in Brixton, a young woman came up and introduced herself as “a Bulgarian Kiwi”.

“Are you the writer?” I asked.

“No, that’s my sister,” she replied. It turned out that both Kapka and Assia – her younger sister then chatting to me over the Technics turntables – had done the Kiwi OE thing and shifted to the UK. But Kapka had skipped London and was now living in Edinburgh (Dunedin seemingly having been more profoundly influential than she imagined).

A sporadic email correspondence began between us (concerning our shared fascination for the Balkans and the grind of a writer’s life) and I read her two non-fiction books – A Street Without A Name (about growing up in Sofia) and Twelve Minutes Of Love (about dancing tango with different blokes including that old goat Clive James) – with greater enthusiasm than Reconnaissance. I finally met Kapka in 2016 when she was on the panel of an academic event concerning the Balkans at the British Library (she gave good chat; the rest of the day was interminable with professors’ wittering on about Albania’s publishing industry and such).

Kapka announced she was working on a nonfiction book concerning Bulgaria’s borderlands with Greece and Turkey: during the Cold War era this area was off-limits to almost all people beyond a handful of peasants who had lived in villages across the region since time out of mind.

Border was published in the UK in February and it is easily the finest book Kassabova has yet written. In recognition of this she has been all over UK media: Jonathan Ross’s Arts programme on Radio 2, Free Thinkers on Radio 3, Book Of The Week on Radio 4, The Guardian‘s Book Of The Week; great reviews everywhere. Border, subtitled “A Journey To The Edge Of Europe”, finds Kassabova exploring what was, for many citizens of the Eastern Bloc, the final frontier beyond which a freedom existed they could only dream of. So she travels the border, talking to border guards, villages, visitors, the corrupt and the innocent. And while doing this she seeks out the stories of those who tried to cross – many failing, some murdered by border patrols, others tortured and jailed.

Amazingly, she even tracks down a man from East Berlin who failed in his attempt and spent time in jail in Bulgaria and then back in East Germany for attempting such. Initially, she’s only on the Bulgarian side of the border but as the book gathers momentum she crosses into Greece, guided by a people smuggler who, had in his time, taken hundreds of people across. Then she’s in Turkey’s Strandja region, recounting of the population exchanges that have occurred across this region (right up to the Bulgarian communist regime expelling the Pomack Muslims and Bulgarian Turks in the 1980s – Communist governments loved to enact the kind of crude, nationalist, anti-Muslim policies that demons like Prez Trump and his thuggish alt.right followers internationally get so excited about).

Border is a fascinating, often brutal journey and one Kassabova relays with intelligence, grace and a poetic eye.

Kapka Kassabova (Image: Marti Friedlander)

Its publication forced Kapka to leave the Scottish Highlands – where she now lives in rural isolation (likely pining for Southland) –  to work the London media, thus we met up on a February evening for dinner with Nick Nasev, an Australian Macedonian and expert on all things Balkan, who lives way up on the 15th floor of a block that towers over Shepherds Bush.

What do three Balkan obsessives with Australasian connections talk about when they get together? There and there and here. Nick knows Bulgaria well, having family and speaking the lingo (Macedonian and Bulgarian are very similar languages) but neither he nor I have ever explored the border region that Kapka illuminates on Border. Paradoxically, Kapka’s unfamiliar with much of the rest of the Balkans – having escaped Bulgaria she likes to return there to mine it for material, but crossing borders into Romania and former-Yugoslavia holds little appeal. Nick gets out there regularly, being a linguist he like to stay afresh of things. And I keep returning too – as if drawn to the chaos and beauty and the music (always the music). I might well also be mining blind for another Balkan book too, not that I have one planned.

Speaking of the old countries, Nick grew up in Adelaide, which has a large Yugoslav population, and I grew up in Mt Roskill (gateway to the Westies – home to many Yugoslavs). I note how by attending Lynfield College I went to school with kids whose families would occasionally take them back to Yugoslavia (Dalmatia mostly, it seems in retrospect) – I then had little concept of Yugoslavia, it being neither in the Eastern bloc nor part of West Europe – as well as kids whose parents had fled Poland and Czechoslovakia: they all had polysyllabic surnames I found impossible to pronounce. There were also kids whose parents hailed from Holland, Ireland, England, Scotland, the US (son of a preacher man), all over Polynesia, India, China, and Dieter from Germany (poor guy – we gave him hell). I tell Kapka this and she says if Dunedin had offered a similar blend of nationalities she mightn’t have found settling in that austere city so difficult.

Kapka Kassabova at the mountainous border region between Bulgaria and Turkey, in one of the last border villages on the Turkish side. (Photo: Nedret Benzet)

While I found our polyglot school yard engaging – we all got on and I don’t recall there ever being a dismissal of anyone’s nationality (the heyday of Irish jokes having passed) – it didn’t make me hunger to get to Europe. Instead, I had American dreams – skateboarding, rock ‘n’ roll, cowboys – while Europe seemed very far away and immensely strange.

Nick, having a Macedonian father, began visiting as a child and immediately felt connected. Kapka notes that she never felt truly comfortable in NZ. She adds that she got a lot from living there (once having overcome adolescent alienation) but always knew her destiny lay in Europe. Europe but not Bulgaria, a nation forever teetering on collapse as the politicians get ever muckier and the populace haemorages to EU nations. Both of us, then, like to visit and write about Balkan lands and also to possess a passport that allows us to withdraw; the Balkans are raw, and living there tends to wear away at even the strongest of characters.

Talk turns to Balkan books and all three of us agree that Rebecca West’s Black Lamb, Grey Falcon is overblown and over-rated. I then mention reading Reconnaissance and thinking it autobiographical. “It’s not at all! It’s fiction!” insists Kapka. Which is a relief, of sorts, as I never experienced such bunk-up action when staying in youth hostels as a teenage hitchhiker.

We can’t critically discuss Border as Nick is yet to read it so here’s a few of my thoughts. Border‘s beautifully written and full of fascinating detail; yet as a seasoned Balkan visitor there were times I had reservations. While Kapka is a born and bred Bulgarian she spends far more time telling the tales of East Germans and Czechs who tried to cross the border than she does that of her fellow Bulgarians. Were they so intimidated by the regime that the silly buggers didn’t even dare attempt to flee? I don’t know as she doesn’t seek out their stories. To my mind the Balkans are Europe at its most vivid and baroque – which is why Emir Kusturica’s initial films were so brilliant and the region’s Gypsy musicians succeed in whipping up such joy – yet Kapka maintains a similar cool distance to proceedings that her backpacker did to NZ in Reconnaissance.

Which may be a stylistic device – Border is literature, not a travel journal – but a pity, too, as the chaos and furies across these lands are often very funny. But there’s no laughs in Border. And while she details the last of peasant village life, she’s less enthusiastic about capturing the throb of contemporary Bulgaria as it swarms around her (heavy metal is worshipped in Bulgaria – David Coverdale’s Whitesnake occupy a position once held by pagan gods or Communist Party leaders) but you won’t learn this here. That said, there is much else here about these dusty, ancient lands of interest both to me and the armchair traveller.

Another photo of Kapka Kassabova at the mountainous border region between Bulgaria and Turkey, in one of the last border villages on the Turkish side. (Photo: Nedret Benzet)

*

A week later and Kapka is back in the Highlands and Nick in Israel, so it’s down to me to travel from South East London to a north Tottenham industrial estate where Ivo Papasov is playing his first UK performance in at least a decade. At 65 Papasov is, arguably, the most famous Bulgarian musician alive (I know, not a lot of competition). He’s a master clarinet player and was the first Balkan musician to win wide recognition when producer Joe Boyd (Pink Floyd, Nick Drake) discovered him in the late 1980s and produced two acclaimed albums.

I didn’t include Papsov in Princes Amongst Men as I couldn’t find him at the time – Ivo has a tendency to drop out of sight – and he’s not in Border either even though his story fits the one Kapka tells: born to Turkish-speaking Muslim parents, during the 1980s when the Bulgarian Communists were forcing everyone to adopt Slavic identities, Ibrahim had to become Ivo. He also spent time in a labour camp due to the Communists disliking his popularity as leader of the nation’s top wedding band (a successful wedding band is a very big deal in the Balkans). Ironically, when I did get around to interviewing Ivo a few years ago he confessed to missing the bad old days when times were, well, if not good at least considerably more secure than in contemporary Bulgaria.

Tonight’s event is put on by a London-based Bulgarian promoter and aimed solely at the Bulgarian community living in the smoke (I only know about it due to Nick alerting me). Ivo’s a big man with beautiful, silvery tone to his playing but tonight he’s not just looking like an old prize fighter but performing like one too. His sharpness and energy are absent. The audience dance the horo and other formation dances popular in the Balkans – everyone joins hands and moves around the room, weaving through tables, as they hop and skip to the music. The atmosphere is absolutely Bulgarian – not a single announcement is made in English – and all that’s missing is a cloud of cigarette smoke hanging over proceedings.

Listening, I think how Ivo’s music represents a Bulgarian beauty now largely lost – pop music rules there, as with everywhere else – just as Kapka’s book details a Bulgaria now largely forgotten (wilfully). And then I think how I have many miles to go before I sleep.


Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova (Granta, $40) is available at Unity Books.

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