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The trauma of exile

SHORTLISTED for the Commonwealth Writer's Award 2000, Reconnaissance, is Kapka Kassabova's first work of fiction. She has, earlier, published a (well-received) book of poems, intriguingly called All Roads Lead To The Sea. A title that leads, in many ways, into her first novel, since the heroine's inchoate, inexact memories often lead to disturbing images of the sea; of crashing waves and muddy beaches and stray donkeys lost against the chill expanse of the Pacific.

Nadejda, the novel's wandering heroine, is like Kassabova, a Bulgarian, hailing from the capital Sofia, moving towards her new, rootless, tenuous existence in her adopted country, New Zealand. On the lines of the Picaresque novel, Nadejda's travels however are not in the usual Picaro mode. Yes, this is a story of the road, of a backpacking heroine and her many and strange encounters on her seemingly pointless travels. But unlike the patterning of the conventional Picaresque novel - with its strong focus on the eventfulness of the journey - Reconnaissance use the tradition aslant. Thus, the events in the journey are in themselves never of any significance: who Nadejda meets, talks to, and sleeps with, are pure plot descriptors. They have imaged in them the randomness of the heroine's journey, the edginess of her existence, and the blurred quality of her sleepwalking encounters.

The song of the road is spiked by the ever present knowledge that events do not happen outside, that what is of the moment is within the silent, sleepy self, that the "point of a voyage is to counteract waiting, to speed up waiting". But the truth is the opposite. That constant movement is the exact counterpart of being still, of being bound. But what is Nadejda, or more accurately, Kassabova bound and trapped by?

The novel is drawn from the wellsprings of the writer's own experience. This is evident from the two remarks in the author's voice that precede the fiction. She qualifies, at the outset, that even though the characters are fictional and that "the place names do not always correspond to geographical reality", "the political events set in Bulgaria are true". Then there is the dedication which pulls in a whole community of readers by stating that Reconnaissance "is dedicated to those who know exile".

Both are telling comments. Indeed they frame the entire narrative that follows. Kassabova tells this story, as anyone who has known dispossession and dislocation, has to. The novel fits neatly into the postcolonial paradigm of migrancy and exile. Kassabova's territory is certainly not unfamiliar today: the novel as a struggle against official history that eludes and suppresses the small story of riots, and peace protests that end violently, of the numerous unspoken and, more importantly, unrecorded instances of governmental repression.

Not surprisingly then Nadejda's journey is as much into the future - her travels in New Zealand - and the journey into her past. Nadejda: The child of a failed marriage, is in constant conflict not with just her personal history but also the history of the Bulgaria that she has left behind. Her fractured life is mirrored in her family's divide - a father who decided to stay behind in Bulgaria and a mother who cast her lot with her brother in New Zealand. Caught within the family fissure is the larger gap in Nadejda's life; the spliced memory of unbelonging, the sense of being caught in a historical maze, one that has no exit point.

What stands out from the very first page is the sense that those who live outside of Balkan polities fail to see: the social and political invisibility of Bulgaria. In her travels, Nadejda's numerous conversations with sundry travellers cohere on a single focal point - her nationality.

Every time Nadejda identifies herself she confronts her Bulgarian representation. Hence the patterning of her responses: where exactly is Bulgaria (no, it is not Czechoslovakia)? What is its capital (no, it is not Bucharest, that is in Hungary)? Oh, is it like Czechoslovakia, very poor (no, its much poorer)? For an Indian reader, what is stunning is the location of Bulgaria. Kassabova's representation segments it from its European Western positioning to those who know of it only in terms of its presence on the margins of the Western world. Bulgaria is not of the Western world the writer makes amply clear. "Those in the freedom and the prosperity of the mature West who suffer from broken manicure, lack of unconditional love, lack of understanding, excessive body hair, failed relationships, paranoia, fatty thighs, ennui and children - they hate us, our misery, our darkness, our East".

It is a compelling novel for sentences and insights such as these. A novel that works even though its heroine is not "heroic", she lies, indulges in petty theft, walks away from commitments, slashes tyres, and inadvertently causes the death of a family member. Because Reconnaissance is not the story of any one person: it is the story, to repeat, of any and all that have felt in her sinews, their dim heartbeats, the trauma of exile and exhumed the feral fears of migrancy.

ANJANA SHARMA

Reconnaissance, Kapka Kassabova, Penguin Books, price not mentioned.

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