March reads (Book Reviews)

Book #1: Border by Kapka Kassabova

Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe is a poetic travelogue which starts in Bulgaria and makes it way through Greece and Turkey. This area of Southeastern Europe is described as a magical place, with witches, mysterious treasures in Thracian tombs, and ghostly villages dotting the landscape. Kassabova is romantic and gypsy-like; she meets an assortment of colourful characters throughout her journey. Perhaps unconscious of their similarities, she relates many of her travel destinations to the same ones taken by the famous Ottoman explorer Evliya Çelebi – a “boon-companion to mankind” according to his self-description.

For a solo traveler Kapka seems to receive little male harassment, although many of the locals are continually surprised that she does not have a husband given her age. The people and natural landscape are described in a lovely florid prose. The forests are primordial, and nature reclaims abandoned mines and depopulated villages from post-socialist economic collapse. While the contemporary political response to migrants in Eastern Europe has generally been one of hostility, the people Kapka talks to seem sympathetic to the migrants. They understand that a short time ago they were the ones fleeing south to the Turkish border rather than across it.

When Kassabova was growing up, the border between Bulgaria and Turkey was considered the weakest link the Iron Curtain and many Eastern Europeans tried to flee to Turkey. Most were captured, and many were killed. The prospect of escape was especially tantalizing as many holiday-goers would congregate near the Black Sea by Turkish-Bulgarian border, also known as the Red Riviera in the Eastern Bloc. Many of the characters Kapka meets still have scars left by the Cold War: an instinctual fear of borders and state authority.

Even after heaving read a history of Bulgaria, I still learned many interesting facts from this book. In the 1960s Bulgaria was the largest exporter of tobacco in the world. Up until Soviet nationalization, Bulgaria had a near monopoly on rose attar (rose oil).

For reasons too tied up with soil composition to be quickly grasped, only two regions of the world currently have the right conditions for the Rosa damascena: the plains of upper Thrace in Bulgaria, known as the Valley of Roses, and Isparta in Turkey.

While the economic prospects of every industry in Bulgaria suffered during its communist era, the relative decline of Bulgaria’s rose cultivation was more pronounced than its tobacco industry which was able to rely on inelastic demand from smokers craving the mild and aromatic “Oriental” tobacco that came from the country. Unsurprisingly communist governments tend to be pretty bad at luxury goods (except for Habanos?). Exacerbating this decline was the policy of Bulgarisation in which Bulgarian Turks and Pomaks were forced to change their names and renounce their faith. The rose and tobacco industry were largely owned and operated by Muslims, many of whom decided to leave to Turkey. As with all government-sponsored population relocations in this region it was a disaster.

Just as the communist Bulgarian state had been paranoid that the Pomaks were the fifth column of Turkey and Orientalism, the Greeks had been paranoid that the Pomaks were the fifth column of Bulgaria and communism. To reflect the paranoia of each state, in the second half of the twentieth century the names of Bulgarian Pomaks had been Slavicised (that is, de-Islamicised), while the names of Greek Pomaks had been Turkified (that is, de-Slavicised). Do you follow? Exactly. Hellenised and Slavicised, exoticised and demonised, homogenised and revised by South and North, the Pomaks here had turned to the East. True, the East was now telling them that they were Turks, and possibly the oldest Turks on earth, the very vanguard of Turkishness. True, this seems like a throwback to the old blurring of ethnos and religion which has given so much grief to so many until so recently, but then nationalism is like that – it won’t just let people be.

I had also learned from Crampton’s Concise History that Bulgaria was one of the few Axis-allied or controlled countries in Europe that managed to protect its Jews (the other being Denmark). However the government did nothing to protect the Jews of its occupied territories of Greece and Macedonia; a useful reminder that had the King and Army had full reign of the country, Bulgaria may have been no different than Central Europe.

In Bulgaria, thanks to public opposition and the courageous acts of church metropolitans and MPs (some of them communists), the Nazi-allied Bulgarian monarchy halted the deportation of its own Jews, though it didn’t lift a finger to help the Jews of Bulgarian-occupied Macedonia and northern Greece. Much has been made of the physical salvation of the 48,000 Bulgarian Jews, but the anti-Semitic laws that were imposed disenfranchised them permanently, from the key tobacco merchants … to the workers in the tobacco fields and warehouses.

As Kassabova travels between Greece and Turkey she makes several interesting observations into how the soft-Islamist politics of the AKP have transformed the country.

In Turkey, you had a nanny state with a pious, paternalistic facade behind which all manner of excesses raged. In Bulgaria, the excesses of the kleptocracy were hanging out for all to see – a long-standing tradition. In Turkey, the state supported and smothered you. In Bulgaria, you were abandoned to your misfortunes, but you could buy vodka and skinny-dip without being arrested.

However there seems to be more that unites the people in the region than divides them. Religious tensions are partially abated by the ubiquity of traditional “healers” who work and travel across state lines. Apparently the Eastern Orthodox church had a historically more laissez-faire approach to pagan practices than its Western counterpart. Kassabova has a deep love and empathy for the people of Southeastern Europe. While the region’s political and economic policies are a useful case study of what the avoid, the wisdom built up from producing that history has led to a kind of wisdom.

The secret is to have three hearts. One for loving people. Another for loving yourself. And the third one, to love the mountains.

Book #2: East of the West by Mirsoslav Penkov

Miroslav Penkov was born in Bulgaria and moved to United States for university where he has remained ever since. His collection of short stories published in 2011, East of the West, is to be found on most English-language book lists for fiction set in Bulgaria. The stories are beautifully written and one can easily spend a leisurely weekend reading the book. Through the stories one feels a closer connection to, and understanding of, the Balkans. I wonder though how much of the impressionistic literary landscape was an authentic Bulgarian one as opposed to the nostalgia of an expatriate. Regardless, western audiences will find Penkov’s style of writing very easy to become absorbed in.

The ghosts of Balkan history are interlaced through the stories including Ottoman rule (Devshirme), the Balkan wars of independence (Makedonja), and Communism’s rise and fall (Buying Lenin). Many of the characters suffer in isolation: an old man who learns of his wife’s first husband but cannot talk to her as she has severe dementia, a Bulgarian emigre whose wife leaves him for an American doctor, and a man who is forever to be frustrated in being reunited with his first lover. The self-titled short story, East of the West, tells of a tragic romance caused by the legacy of the Balkan Wars, and feels like literary incarnation Kassabova’s book Border (see above). A village that has grown around both sides of a river finds itself split into two nationalities after the creation of the modern the Bulgarian and Serb nation states. While the communities begin to drift apart slowly over time, there are still annual festivities which draw old families together. There is also the inevitable romantic unions that form between the youth on either sides of the river. After two teenagers fall in love through surreptitious late-night rendezvous, the girl becomes pregnant and both children’s respective families ensure that a marriage occurs. Just before the wedding day the bride is shot dead by border guards during an unsuccessful river crossing. As always with the Balkans, people seem to serve history rather than the other way around.

Book #3: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

The Poisonwood Bible tells the story of a missionary family that moves to the Belgian Congo in the 1950s. The family is made up of the unloving patriarch Nathan Price, his obedient wife Orleanna, and their four irreverent and charming daughters. The first three books of the novel tell of the rise and fall of the Price family with one disaster after another taking away their few possessions and health. The method of the family’s immiseration is the Congo’s natural vagaries: armies of ants, poisonous snakes, tropical weather, and disease. While the Prices began their mission assuming that they would be the ones teaching the locals the glories of Western civilization, by the end of their calamitous stay they are on the verge of starvation and being supported the generosity of the villagers (who fear their death may leave pesky white ghosts). The Congo’s tumultuous politics also impacts the Price family: the country’s independence in 1960 leads to an exodus of Europeans and outside support and villagers question whether a white family will be a political liability as Mobutu consolidates power after ousting Lumumba in a coup.

But Nathan wouldn’t hear my worries. For him, our life was as simple as paying in cash and sticking the receipt in your breast pocket: we had the Lord’s protection, he said, because we came to Africa in His services… I could never work out whether we were to view religion as a life-insurance policy or a life sentence. I can understand a wrathful God who’d just as soon dangle us all from a hook. And I can understand a tender, unprejudiced Jesus. But I could never quite feature the two of them living in the same house.

For Father, the Kingdom of the Lord is an uncomplicated place, where tall, handsome boys fight on the side that always wins. I suppose it resembles Killdeer, Mississippi where father grew up, and played the position of quarterback in high school.

Nathan’s sociopathy ensures that he expends no energy worrying about the well-being of his family. He finds it unnecessary to learn the customs of the locals and as a result does not understand why the villagers refuse to be baptized (they are afraid of crocodiles in the river). He is taken aback when a doctor suggests that Belgian colonial rule has been a disaster for the people of the Congo. Nathan sees Africans as children unable to govern their own affairs. Even within the context of European colonies in Africa, the Congo stands out for its deprivation and backwardness: the country didn’t have a single university until the 1950s and the road network amounted to the minimal infrastructure needed to get resources out of the country.

In one way or another all the characters, save Nathan, have their personalities shaped by the Congo. The character portraits in the novel are all so different; asking the question how individuals who go through the same experience can come out with such radically different trajectories. Part of this is due to initial conditions. Rachel, the oldest daughter, finds life in the Congo to be the hardest adjustment as she is stripped of her social relations and teenage-girl accouterments. While having very little in common with Nathan, she shares his disdain for the natives and African culture more generally. Leah begins the novel idolizing her father, but by the end of the book she has abandoned her American identity, marrying a Congolese man who is part of the resistance and ultimately moves to communist Angola. Despite understanding the institutional causes of post-colonial African institutions, Leah finds she can live no where else.

The Congolese have an extra sense. A social sense, I would call it. It’s a way of knowing people at a glance, adding up the possibilities for exchange, and it’s as necessary as breathing. Survival is a continuous negotiation, as you have to barter covertly for every service the government pretends to provide, but actually doesn’t. How can I begin to describe the complexities of life here in a country whose leadership sets the standard for absolute corruption? You can’t even have a post office box in Kinshasa; the day after you rent it, the postmaster may sell your box to the highest bidder, who’ll throw your mail in the street as he walks out the door… To an outsider it looks like chaos. It isn’t. Its negotiation, infinitely ordered and endless.

Our hardest task is teaching the people to count on a future: to plant citrus trees, and compost their wastes for fertilizer. This confused me at first. Why should anyone resist something so obvious as planting a fruit tree or improving the soil? But for those who lived as refugees longer than memory, learning to believe in the nutrient cycle requires something close to a religious conversion.

Each chapter in Poisonwood is told from the perspective of one of the female characters (we never hear Nathan’s inner monologue). The character I found the most endearing was the third-born, Adah Price, who suffers from hemiplegia and faithfully records the family’s saga despite never talking. Adah finds a certain freedom living in the Congo where bodily damage is more or less considered to be a by-product of living, not a disgrace – part of the legacy of colony’s brutal rubber industry. Her analysis is full of witty observations well beyond her years, and most delightfully, endless world play and palindromes. Some of my favourites include:

We aimed for no more than to have dominion over every creature that moved upon the earth.

So they stoned the dame and married two more wives apiece and lived happily ever after. I yawned, uninspired yet again by the pious beautiful Susanna. I was unlikely ever to have her problems.

Poor tyrannical Rachel keeps trying to build a big-sister career upon a slim sixteen-month seniority, insisting that we respect her as our elder. But Leah and I have not thought of her in that way since the second grade, when we passed her up in the school spelling bee. Her downfall was the ridiculously easy word scheme.

Rachel paradoxically spends her whole life in Africa but goes the White Settler approach, spurning the locals and remaining faithful to her ideal of an American life. After a series of failed marriages, Rachel opens a hotel in Brazzaville where she spends the rest of her life playing the grande dame. Indifferent to her own ignorance, her narrations are filled with amusing malapropisms: … he has forgotten that we Christians have our own system of marriage, and it is called Monotony.

Chinua Achebe criticized Heart of Darkness for making Africa a foil to Europe; an endless list of comparisons between civilization in the West and a wild brutality of the continent. Does The Poisonwood Bible escape this literary theme? Not totally. Nor would it seem possible for it to given it narrators are five American women and girls who necessarily contrast their African experience to what they remember of home. Adah, being the most observant child, is given the role of both guessing and deducing what the Congolese make of these foreign transplants. While Conrad will continue to be part of the Western literary canon, I would hope that Kingsolver’s excellent book will join the classics of post-colonial literature, even if it is from a Western perspective.

Book #4: The Great Escape by Paul Brickhill

Books and movies about WWII will never lose their appeal to the English-speaking world. Not only was it a “good war”, it was won decisively, and during times of turbulence it allows the armchair historian to retriet to a society that was united in a common struggle. The war gave more than purpose, it allowed many men to distinguish themselves in a way they never could have done in civilian life. Surely one of the most memorable events in the war, among the millions of other ones, was the escape of 77 air force officers in one night from the Stalag Luft III POW prison in eastern Prussia in March 1944. The Great Escape explains how this achievement was carried out. It almost belies belief. The prisoners managed to dig three tunnels: named Tom, Dick, and Harry. The successful tunnel, Harry, had working air pumps used to create a ventilation system, as well as trolleys, and underground lighting. The escapees also required civilian uniforms, passports, and a variety of other documents. All of these were made by tailors and forgers in the camp. The tunnels also had to be reinforced because the soil was very sandy, and this was done by surreptitiously stripping wood from the bed frames and other structures. Tins and cutlery were fashioned into necessary mining tools (chisels, hammers, etc).

Such a feat required extreme organizational skills. Brickhill explains how RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell was able to organize the prisoners to ensure that there were hundreds of men monitoring guards, dispersing dug up sand, and digging round-the-clock. Essential to the enterprise was the ability to bribe and blackmail some of the German guards who provided early warnings, essential material, and other information. Brickhill was a prisoner himself but was not on the list of men eligible for the break as he had claustrophobia. This was a retrospective blessing. Fifty of the captured men were shot, including Roger Bushell, based on a direct order from Hitler. Up until this time, American and British POWs, and especially officers, were treated relatively well (unlike their Soviet counterparts). After learning of their comrades fate, the men of the were shocked and demoralized. The savagery the Germans had displayed to virtually every other conquered nation was now being shown on Allied and Commonwealth forces.

Several months later when knowledge of the crime reacher Britain, Athony Eden promised their would be exemplary justice carried out on those Nazis who committed the crimes. After the war, Wilfred Bowes led the investigation into finding the officers responsible for the murders. From 1945-47 he was able to track a handful of Nazis down, but as the Iron Curtain began to descend, he received less help from the Soviet occupied territories. The men who made The Great Escape embodied courage, honour, and an almost forgotten sense of chivalry. Reading the book, I sometimes felt that I was reading the script to a Disney movie, only it actually happened.

Written on April 14, 2020