Last weekend I stumbled across a far-right rally in Thessaloniki, Greece's second city. The signature cadences of an aspiring fascist demagogue, and the small crowd's robotic chants, were unmistakable even before I caught sight of the capo sawing the air at the waterfront under a statue of Alexander the Great. The dark-uniformed neo-Nazis then paraded their Greek flags through town in the run-up to this Sunday's European elections, flinging about leaflets stamped with a swastika-like Hellenic emblem and urging that "illegal immigrants" be sent home.
Gazmend Kapllani, a prominent Greek journalist born in Albania, believes it was supporters of the same neo-Nazi group, Chrysi Avyi or Golden Dawn, who tried to beat him up two weeks ago at a public reading of this memoir. It was held in Aghios Panteleimonas, effectively a migrant ghetto in central Athens named after the "saint of charity for all". At Thessaloniki's book fair, Kapllani told me that he had taken refuge in a nearby house for several hours while some 20 neo-Nazis rampaged - unhindered by police - terrorising children in a playground, then blogging that they had cleared the district of "scum" like him. Earlier, an Orthodox priest was attacked for distributing food, and his church firebombed.
Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife's translation of A Short Border Handbook could not be timelier. Born in 1967, Kapllani entered Greece with many Albanians in 1991, six years after the dictator Enver Hoxha died, and soon after the gates of the prison-state were opened. Kapllani, who had taught himself Italian and French for a clandestine window on the world, worked as a builder, cook and kiosk-attendant in Athens while learning Greek and English, studying philosophy and earning a doctorate. Now a columnist for Ta Nea, Greece's largest-circulation left-wing newspaper, he is one of the few to have "made it". Yet he feels a "mixture of deliverance and perplexity", a symptom of what he terms "border syndrome".
In the ironically titled "handbook", fragments of memoir alternate with more timeless reflections on migration, shifting from first to second to third person. Partly fictionalised, it draws on others' experiences, including the brutal trafficking of women. Yet pain coexists with humour, as in his sardonic take on how Albanian men are perceived, with their "primitive haircut", eyeing women "the way Quasimodo looks at Esmeralda" or charging into a video shop "as though we had come to greet the messiah". Pointing out that cold-war Greece narrowly escaped communism, one man says: "Why didn't they get Hoxha instead of us? Bastards." The result combines the wittily mischievous eye for absurdity of George Mikes's How to be an Alien with the philosophical insight of Milan Kundera.
Kapllani recalls a childhood of ubiquitous, Stasi-like informers, and a rebellious "xenomania" amid paranoid isolation. People decorate their houses with soap-powder cartons washed up from the Adriatic. Yet in his first week on Greek soil, after hiding in a truck and walking through the barbed-wire border, he is body-searched in a supermarket, lied to, starved and incarcerated latterly in an insanitary warehouse after a police round-up of suspected criminals. "We are nursing a timebomb," a TV reporter says. "Deport them now." Yet "why should I have to answer for every last criminal who happens to have been born in the same country as me?"
He reflects on the drive of the "egotistical narcissist" feeling too good for his native land; the dilemmas of memory and self-reinvention; the orphan's sense of being free but lost. The book traces the "thousands of invisible borders" that persist, from locals who speak "like a sewing machine" to landlords who stipulate "no foreigners, no pets" - recalling the "no blacks, no Irish" of a Britain before the Race Relations acts.
Images of the first Iraq war have no effect on these migrants: "We had our own battle to fight." Yet while Albanians and Afghans remain scapegoated, Greek mass emigration of the 1950s and 1960s is taboo. "One of your crimes is that you remind the natives of what life used to be like for them... the pain and humiliation of being a migrant, the worn-out faces, the peasant gait, the heavy stench of sweat and garlic."
"You cannot understand a migrant if you haven't heard his story." With the best migrant literature, this book tells a collective story through a personal one. "You have no voice. You are not even a consumer," Kapllani says. Yet in giving himself a voice, he has become a target, even for those who scorn the far right but share its assumptions: "those who fear you the most are those who read few books but watch too much television". While all of us are "incurably transient" on this Earth, our greatest virtue, he suggests, is the ability to adapt to change, regardless of who we're descended from. It's a virtue as much for hosts seeing their societies transformed as for newcomers; for those of us with "cool" passports as much as those landed by pure chance with "bad" ones.