Book Review: A Short Border Handbook by Gazmend Kapllani

“Before being built on the ground, borders and walls are erected in our minds and souls.”


After spending his childhood and school years in Albania, imagining that the miniskirts and game shows of Italian state TV were the reality of life in the West, and fantasizing accordingly about living on the other side of the border, the 1985 death of Albanian Communist leader Hoxha at last enables Gazmend Kapllani to make his escape. However, on arriving in the promised land, he finds neither lots of willing leggy lovelies nor a warm welcome from his long-lost Greek cousins. Instead, he gets banged up in a detention center in a small border town. As Gazi and his fellow immigrants try to find jobs, they begin to plan their future lives in Greece, imagining riches and successes which always remain just beyond their grasp. The sheer absurdity of their plans and their new lives is overwhelming. Both detached and involved, ironic and emotional, Kapllani interweaves the story of his experience with meditations upon border syndrome—a mental state, as much as a geographical experience—to create a brilliantly observed, amusing, and perceptive debut.

My Thoughts on A Short Border Handbook:

Deeply moving and heartbreakingly beautiful. This book is an eye opener to those who are in the dark of what it’s like to be ruled under totalitarianism, the challenges of being an immigrant after escaping from tyranny, and the border syndrome that comes with it.

While reading, my heart cried out to those who became victims of totalitarianism and it made me realize that I shouldn’t take my life for granted.

I highly recommend this to those who have lost life’s meaning and to those who are seeking for freedom be it from an unhealthy relationship or even freedom from the negative thoughts within. I also recomend this book to those who are working overseas.

Quotes from A Short Border Handbook:

“Leaving is a choice, a choice to break with the country of his birth. This break follows him for the rest of his life. It will be the source of his sense of guilt and of freedom, rejection and denial, daydreaming and nostalgia, forgetting and melancholy, mood swings and schizophrenia. Only if he makes a success of life abroad, only then can he make peace with his country again. If he doesn’t make it, he will be left hanging, at odds with the world and with the universe.”

“You have to get a job. Any job. You have to survive. You have to find somewhere to live – doesn’t matter what it’s like as long as it looks vaguely like home. You have to learn the language, even if you can’t understand a single word of it and you get your ‘good nights’ and your ‘good evenings’ all mixed up. You have to learn to speak more softly, and not shout, because it scares people.”

“There is something heroic about the way a migrant abandons his native land. Nevertheless, in his everyday life, he is fragile, confused, and at times ridiculous, like a card player who dreams of that one amazing trick but lacks essential knowledge of the rules of the game.”

“He thought that he had arrived in a place where everything would be easy, where help would be at hand, where people would explain the rules for him, and not only that, would praise him if he managed to to beat them. Now he discovers that his idols don’t give a damn about him; he discovers something worse, that no one asked him to come, that he is there uninvited, and nobody notices him. An invisible creature, which, on the rare occasions it is noticed, inspires either momentary pity or lasting disgust.”

“The fact that you arrived uninvited makes you feel uncomfortable, and deeply guilty, and you may never get over that feeling. Because apart from everything else, they keep reminding you of the fact. This is your original sin. Each time you try to break out of this obscurity, they’ll be there to remind you that you’re an unwanted guest.”

“Those who cross borders illegally develop strange habits. Laughing too much is one of them. They are overcome by a mood for fun and jokes, as though they have just emerged from side-splitting revenue when in fact danger and the threat of death is all around them. Perhaps it’s the imminence of death and the fear of it that provoke this laughter. It’s as though they want to cajole and seduce death. Human laughter is the perfect cover, it’s like telling death, “There’s no way you’re getting us. Look at us – we’re laughing, we’re not even thinking about you. We love life. We want to live. We want to survive. You’ll have to look elsewhere for customers. You won’t find any here.”

“Being a migrant can mean a lot of things, but most of all it means work. You don’t emigrate so you can play the tough guy, but to save up money. You will do anything to succeed in this. You take on two or maybe three jobs in a day.”

“From within the madness of totalitarianism, I had imagined that as soon as I crossed the borders, a completely different life would start, a whole new world. And it was. The world I saw around me was completely different. At least very differnet from the one  I’d been living in until yesterday. I was free in the world beyond the borders. A strange feeling had taken over me, one I couldn’t describe. I felt like an orphaned child – completely free but at the same time completely lost.”

“It’s a tough life because there are so many opportunities for becoming neurotic, miserable, and for being consumed by loneliness every single day. Loneliness, as a poet once said, is not missing other people, but finding yourself in a big crowd, talking, and not being understood. There are so many opportunities for being suspicious and aggressive toward those you have become convinced don’t want you. In this way you slide into the underbelly of society, where there is more than enough darkness, and where the greatest danger of all lurks: that you will give in to darkness.”

“Before being built on the ground, borders and walls are erected in our minds and souls.”

“He imagined that this city would resemble one enormous supermarket where he could get anything he wanted: dreams, happiness, prosperity, even love. That’s what it looked like from a distance anyway, but now, standing in the center, he’s feeling dizzy and  scared. Because everything around him looks so cold, so fast, so soulless, so indifferent.”

“The language: behold the first invisible border.”

“We are all migrants, armed with a temporary residence permit for this earth, each and everyone of us incurably transient.”

“That messy, confused, exciting, painful, and comical experience of crossing borders, of encountering a foreign sky, a foreign language, a foriegn culture. As a refugee and an immigrant.”

“What I wanted to tell you about was my illness, border syndrome, a condition you won’t find documented in any manual of recognized psychological disorders. It’s not like agoraphobia, vertigo, depression. And it’s not like any physical disease spread by a virus, but that doesn’t make me any less of a carrier – maybe just a carrier with low levels, as the doctors are fond of describing carriers of hepatitis whose organs have developed enough antibodies to keep the deadly march of the virus in check. Nevertheless, border syndrome is just as pernicious as the hepatitis virus because you can never truly get rid of it. It just sits there, in a latent state, wedged between time and space, wedged between your body and the gaze of others, ready to strike at any moment to take possession of your memories, your silence, the expression in your eyes, your spleen, your smile, your passion and your life. It’s then that you start to experience your body and your face and your origins as a burden. You long to be free of it all, if only for just a second, for as long as it takes to cross the borders – if only for that long.”

“In the final analysis, it takes guts; it takes guts to go head to head with borders and start your life again from scratch: with language; street names; people’s names – to make this foreign city your own. Being a thorough bred migrant means acknowledging the power of the will, and coming to terms with the outrageous tricks of fate and to understand that the greatest human virtue is the ability to adapt and change and has nothing to do with who you are descended from, and to realize that the secret of success is at once simple and complicated: never to tire of life.”

About the Author:

Gazmend Kapllani was born in 1967 in Lushnjë, Albania. In January 1991 he crossed the border into Greece on foot to escape persecution by the communist secret services. In Greece he worked as a builder, a cook and a kiosk attendant, while also studying at Athens University and completing a doctorate on the image of Albanians in the Greek press and of Greeks in the Albanian press. He is now a successful writer, playwright, broadcaster and journalist with a twice-weekly column in Ta Nea, Greece’s biggest daily newspaper.

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