The Magic Place
Photo by robad0b.
People always ask ‘Where are you from?’ But in the 21st century, this question is not about the passports you hold. This is why I’ve given up on the short, geopolitically precise answer, which is ‘Bulgarian Kiwi Brit’ – no one knows what to say next. Somehow, bringing up Lord of the Rings or the Bulgarian umbrella murder doesn’t seem right. And anyway, this short answer doesn’t address the unspoken questions-within-the-question, such as Where do you really belong; Goodness, how did your accent get like this; Are you here by choice, necessity or accident; and Oh, I see, you’re one of those people who’ve been around the world but can’t be happy anywhere? Well, I used to be. Now I live in Britain and I’m not. So, here is the long answer – instead of a love letter to Scotland.
For each one of us, there are three types of place in the world:
1. Neutral: you go there on holiday, enjoy and return home without regret. Nothing important will happen to you there. It’s not the place itself that is neutral of course – every place on earth has a charge – but we are concerned with the chemistry between you and the place. It is like meeting someone whose name or face you soon forget.
2. Places where you are destined to be ill at ease, in some subtle but incurable way not unlike a dysfunctional relationship between two people who bring out the worst in each other. There are several ways of being out of joint in a place, and one is called homeland (being born in the wrong place). Another is called emigration (moving to the wrong place). The obvious cure seems to be further travel, physical and mental. To be in a suspended state. To be simply away.
3. Which takes us to the third kind of place: the magic place. Paul Bowles summed it up in his aptly titled memoir Without Stopping:
Like any Romantic, I had always been vaguely certain that sometime during my life I should come into a magic place which in disclosing its secrets would give me wisdom and ecstasy – perhaps even death.
He did come into that place, and so do his characters. For him and them, it was North Africa. Where was my magic place, I wondered, aged eight, as I stayed up late reading Scarlet Sails by From where I stood on the chipped balcony of Block Number 328, the world was a distant rumour, radio static, something that happened in books. Alexander Green. It is the story of a girl waiting for a mythical ship with scarlet sails to appear and take her away. Green’s stories were set in places with names like Zurbagan and Caperna, and his characters were called Longren and Azole, which is why you wouldn’t guess that he never made it out of Soviet Russia, except in his imagination. I stood on our concrete balcony and surveyed the thousands of lit-up squares on the thousands of identical high-rises on the outskirts of Sofia. Not a scarlet sail in sight.
Tinkling with trams and punctuated by Orthodox churches, Sofia lived in the shadow of chestnut trees and late totalitarianism. It held on to its belle epoqué remains under the onslaught of brutalist architecture and big-fisted proletarian monuments that soon became chipped, like our Block Number 328 where my sister, my mathematician parents and I lived as cheerfully as we could. We had an orange Skoda, and my father spent every weekend lying under it, in between writing research papers, while my mother made birthday cakes without flour; milk or sugar – such things were reserved for the Bright Future.
From where I stood on the chipped balcony of Block Number 328, the world was a distant rumour, radio static, something that happened in books. I was ten, and already writing poems about railway stations and sailing away. On dangerous adventures, like The Sea Wolf by Jack London. To misty Scotland – or was it England? – with Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles; to Rome with I, Claudius; to America with Charlie Chaplin’s My Autobiography; to Italy with Michelangelo’s The Agony and the Ecstasy.
Five years later at Sofia’s Lycée Français, I devoured Albert Camus’s L’étranger and felt the murderous hammer of the Algerian sun on that beach. Clearly, Mersault’s story was written especially for me – a Bulgarian teenager throbbing with hormones and alienation. Then I forgot the question and the alienation, because the Berlin Wall suddenly fell, and in the resulting rubble our family was catapulted in an unexpected direction: the West. Or rather Down Under, where an academic job materialized for my father.
In my atlas, New Zealand was two small splashes at the bottom of the Pacific. Magic was imminent: palm trees, dolphins, smiling natives. New Zealand was going to be like my illustrated edition of Robinson Crusoe. Hyperventilating with disbelief, we waved goodbye to everyone we knew, crossed the timeline on a one-way ticket, and arrived at the bottom of the South Island with a container of books and a piano. The news hit us instantly: this was not the tropics (it was snowing), the people looked like sunburned Scots, and we were at the end of the world. For years, we huddled together for comfort and got on with the business of psychic survival, as emigrant families do. We tried not to look back because we couldn’t afford to. Instead, we got our New Zealand passports, took to eating ‘fush and chups’, learned to sing ‘Po Karekare Ana’ (my dad on the accordion), and lived in a big house with a garden – my parents’ post-brutalist dream come true.
And yet something was missing. It was as if we’d stepped off a cliff and were floating in some Pacific ocean-carpeted waiting room to the afterworld. Through my late teens and twenties, I wrestled with the feeling that my real life was unfolding elsewhere, far from here. Here was burnt tussock and killer sun, flowers that reminded me of nothing and beaches that went on forever but were too cold or dangerous to swim in. Here were friendly people who loved rugby and the outdoors. Here was weatherboard suburbia that stretched like an infinite Legoland, and Japanese cars that shone in the sun with a migrainous glare. I moved from Dunedin to Wellington to Auckland, longing to feel part of something. But that something remained in my head.
In Tahiti, where I spent a month on a university scholarship researching my old favourite Albert Camus, I found myself swimming further and further from the beach. One afternoon I swam so far that I lost sight of the shore. I could see the triangles of sharks’ fins ahead – they came out at dusk. Perhaps I was on a swimmer’s high, but my deep desire was to keep going until I met my destiny, whatever that was. I felt more connected with the water than with the land. Back at the beach, I realized what had just happened. This is what living in the Pacific was for me – a death wish on hold. I didn’t know how to fix it, except by running away, again.
In Marseille, where I spent a year dodging work as a language assistant in a college, I found myself living alone by the sea and writing my first novel. It was set in Bulgaria and New Zealand, and it was raw and angry about both places. Something strange was happening: I was discovering the imaginative pull of distance, but this time as a writer. The further away I was from a place, the more vividly I imagined it, the more real it became to me. And the urge to write it into being over rode the natural urge to live in the present.
Presently, the faded stone forts, old-world brokenness and bleached afternoons of Marseille pulled me in like a distant memory. I was certain that I had already seen the Castle of If where the Count of Monte Cristo was imprisoned. I felt closer to the Arabs The Berlin Wall suddenly fell, and in the resulting rubble our family was catapulted in an unexpected direction: the West. with their shambolic markets, the Foreign Legionnaires with their unhappy eyes, and the quick-tempered Marseillais who spat and pissed on the pavements than I had ever felt with the wholesome outdoor-bound Kiwis and Aussies. It dawned on me now: the magic place is not just about the landscape and the buildings, it’s also about the people who grow from the place. Something in me – the old, grubby part of my soul – plugged straight into Marseille, and for the first time in my life, I felt like I was actually living. Then my visa expired, and I returned to New Zealand, Europe-sick and plotting my next escape. But not before I started writing a historic novel set in France and Greece.
I spent my Wellington days inside a bare rented room, surrounded by maps of the Mediterranean and books on Greece. I was living in a continuous state of ‘internal emigration’ – which is what I’d done as a child, with my books. It’s when you feel more at home inside your head than in your environment. Result: you spend as much time as possible inside your head. I’m sure there is a psychiatric term for this, but I was too busy planning my move to Greece at the time to stop and comprehend the fact that it was enough to write a novel set in Greece; moving there would be overkill, even for me.
In any case, the mad plan was dislodged by the news that my first novel was short-listed for a prize. I went to Delhi for the award, and overstayed by two months. I considered moving to Delhi, then got into trouble. I was out of control. Where best to go when you’re out of control? Buenos Aires of course, at the worst moment of its financial collapse. I spent a month dancing tango and taking notes. The economy was bust, people were crying in the streets, the tango clubs were full, and naturally, I considered moving there. But I went to Berlin instead, for a year’s writing fellowship during which I aborted a novel set – of course – in Paraguay and Argentina. I lived in the Jewish neighbourhood Mitte and walked along the vanished Wall which criss-crossed the city like stitching. At least here, everything was real, even the ghosts who followed me like limping dogs. Berlin was like Sofia, except more so. I was reliving, every day, in the first person singular, the collective past of the twentieth century. Not something to put a spring in your step. So when my visa expired, I went home.
Home. Where was that? Home can be your mother tongue – that was gone, I was writing and living in English, making my imaginative home there. Home could be your father’s house – and in fact, I was living with my parents in Auckland again. But when you’re thirty and living with your parents, it doesn’t feel so much as home as arrested development. I needed to strike out again. I hadn’t given up looking for the magic place that would give me all those things that Paul Bowles found in the Sahara.
I went to the Sahara. I photographed some dunes, drank tea with the Berbers, visited the Hotel Continental in Tangiers where the opening and closing scenes in The Sheltering Sky are filmed. The closest I found to ‘wisdom and ecstasy’ was when I was visited by some intestinal parasites and a strange desert flu. Afterwards, I read every single book set in Morocco that I could find in English and French, starting with our old friend Paul Bowles and ending with Tahar Ben Jelloun’s story of a political prisoner who lived underground for twenty years.
My arrival in Edinburgh seven years ago was almost a blind date. Ever since a short visit with my parents as a teenager, I’d remembered the city as a castle on a rock atop a purple ocean.
This time, my happiness was instant, a destiny fulfilled. The castle was still here – everything was still here, because nothing changes here except in memory. I loved the way chimneys cast shadows on sunny afternoons, the way buildings were made to precede you and outlive you while housing you, as if you too will live forever. The haar that crept in from the sea. The cemeteries bumpy with centuries of flesh. The way locals asked ‘Where do you stay?’ and my neighbours invited me for a ‘fish supper’. The way nobody is too interested in you – a great British quality, this live-and-let-live discretion – and yet you end up talking with strangers in shops, because Edinburgh people have time. The worn stone steps that lead to unexpected passages of time. The palatial smugness of Morningside and the smashed-up people of Leith; the lanes where today’s best ideas were written down by men who walked through excrement because Edinburgh was not so big on hygiene. The sense of being in the centre of things yet not in the eye of the storm, an hour from London and Europe, a radio button away from the BBC, less than a century away from an empire . . . And you were simultaneously living in two countries, like a matryoshka doll, which was ideal. I was far from the concrete balcony of my childhood, but not so far that I felt removed from myself. I stayed.
I had arrived in Edinburgh not knowing a single soul – except the man I came with, who was a kindred lost spirit. He never stopped being a lost spirit, which is why our four years together came to an abrupt end that resembled a car crash. Overnight, he disappeared from my life and into a new identity. I was tempted to pack up the wreckage of my Edinburgh life, bury it and put a cross on it somewhere discreet, like the top of Arthur’s Seat, then go some place completely new where nobody could guess where I came from and what I carried inside.
But my destiny was here; I knew it in my bones. I dug my heels in even deeper in Edinburgh. I stayed, all over again. But a city was not enough any more, I had too many painful memories there and I needed to feel at home in this whole country. I needed space to house my past, as well as my future. I bought a car and drove deep into the Scottish Highlands.
I plunged into a wilderness of giant shaved hills that spoke of distant devastation, and dark forests that sometimes looked indigo. I needed space to house my past, as well as my future. I bought a car and drove deep into the Scottish Highlands. I swam in lochs and walked by rivers. Sky that moved every second. The sheep were scattered like tombs. The wind had a voice I understood. The stone houses grew from the land. This was an ancient, human landscape whose imprint I already carried. Here were the changing colours of my childhood seasons. The blue line of the sea ahead, like a promise. The stoical faces of the people. This place was the northern continuation of me. Strangely, in this remote bit of the continent, everything important felt within reach: the sky, the ocean, the past, the end of Europe and the beginning, the city and the opposite of the city, the life of the mind and the life of the body. I felt geographically complete.
‘And now,’ Bowles writes, ‘as I stood in the wind looking at the mountains ahead, it was as if I were drawing close to the solution of an as-yet unposed problem. I was incredibly happy as I watched the wall of mountains slowly take on substance, but I let the happiness wash over me and asked no questions.’
I had already spent a lifetime asking those questions. Now, I had an answer.
These days I live in the Highlands with someone who is deeply rooted in the place and, like the place, has the wisdom to accommodate my history. I will never stop travelling of course, because I never want to abandon the world. Just as I hope the world doesn’t abandon us if politicians with doughy faces and dated ideas have their way and Scotland breaks away from the Britain that makes it such a perfect home for the likes of us – the people who have left the fear and loathing of nationalism in the rubble of the twentieth century, and believe that borders need to open, not close, so that we can be more, not less.
That’s all very well, but what happens to the imagination when the spirit stops flickering like the needle of a broken compass? You go inwards more than you go outwards, and the nature of your enquiry changes. It’s not about where to go next, but about where you’ve been, what happened and why. I now know that the practice of internal emigration when there is clearly no need to emigrate further is simply called being a writer. And there is no cure for it. Something else I know: those who go broke searching for the magic place are homeless. What they are really looking for is home. Home not as the place you come from, but the place you reach; home as the place where you understand yourself. That is where the wisdom and the ecstasy are. The death too, one day.
Perhaps you knew this all along. Lucky you. ■
You can listen to Kapka Kassabova read from and discuss this essay tonight (10 May) at the following event:
The Edinburgh Launch
10 May, 6 p.m., Waterstones, 128 Princes Street, Edinburgh EH2 4AD. Tickets £2 (redeemable against a book purchase on the night), free to Granta subscribers. Purchase tickets through firstname.lastname@example.org, in-store or by calling 0131 226 2666.
Granta invites you to Waterstones Edinburgh for a festive evening of readings and conversation with Granta’s online editor Ted Hodgkinson, author Kapka Kassabova, poet Don Paterson and photographer Ian Teh to explore the stories that Britain is telling about itself today. This event also marks the start of a UK-wide events series hosted in collaboration with Waterstones.
You can also listen to Kapka Kassabova read an abridged version of this essay on BBC Radio 4 as part of Book of the Week at 9.45 a.m. tomorrow (11 May).