Philosophical rumination on crossing borders

Issue 
Cover for "A Short Border Handbook".

A Short Border Handbook
By Gazmend Kapllani
Portobello Books 2009
159 pages

Review by Alex Miller

This book, which the author describes as “part autobiography, part fiction”, is hard to assess. Each chapter is divided into two parts. The first part tells the story of a man (presumably Kapllani himself) who crosses into Greece from Albania when the border between those two countries opened in 1991. The second part consists of “philosophical” ruminations on issues raised by the story of the first part.

It’s hard not to be sympathetic to the main character and the acquaintances he makes on his way out of Albania. Some of them have fantastic illusions about what awaits them in the West, but they all end up in a horrible detention centre and are tricked when a priest gets them to board buses that he says will take them to various locations in Greece where they will be given housing and work. In fact, the buses are taking them straight back to Albania. Kapplani himself avoids this fate by striking up a friendship with a Greek policeman.

Although the book is very well written, and not without interest, it fails to live up to the promise of its material.

There is a lot of poking fun at the former Albanian regime. For example, a story of a citizen who ends up in disgrace after accidentally farting at the tomb of the former “communist” dictator Enver Hoxha, and another about a pro-government zealot who falls from a rooftop while snooping on neighbours to find out if they are watching TV from the West.

Okay, so it’s fair game: but it’s been done many times before, and in the light of what happened in the Balkans since 1991, it comes across as just a little self-indulgent.

The notion of “border syndrome” that appears in the philosophical parts of the chapters isn’t particularly convincing.

By theorising about migration in terms suggestive of a psychological disorder — despite mentioning war, poverty and tyranny as causes of the wrongs suffered by migrants — Kapplani manages to miss identifying the single biggest underlying cause of forced migration in today’s world: neo-colonial capitalist exploitation and its consequences.

Despite all that, it is an interesting and occasionally thought-provoking read.