Lea Ypi, Free. A child and a country at the end of history
This is a marvelous almost magical book about growing up in Albania. It encompasses just over a decade under communism, then her teenage years during the unstable transition to democracy. Beautifully written and pivoting around Ypi’s family in all its intimacy and humour, it is quite unexpected from a professor at the London School of Economics.
The story begins with a statue of Stalin but viewed from a toddler’s innocent perspective. Without appearing to meander, we learn a great deal about the simple philosophies and pleasures of Albania under a totalitarian government. Stories about her grandmother who was born in Thessalonika and married an Albanian (who later perishes in the communist camps) are a discrete central theme of Ypi’s fluent narrative. These stories of a pre-war romance are told with bewitching simplicity as though such a Balkan history rooted in the Ottomans was normal. Then there is the fall of the communists and the difficult passage towards democracy. At no time is this time before and after compared in any binary way. Instead, we follow the author as a teenager on a visit to Greece where she returns with a present that purports to be shampoo – something unknown in communist Albania (Ypi talks about communist-period smells that ring so true) – which turns out to be something equally obscure, dishwasher liquid. We meet the first outsiders who are little different from Martians. We hear of those who escaped in cruel, traumatic voyages. Ypi tells the tragedy of a friend trafficked as a sex slave but she resists dwelling on this. We learn about Ypi’s early romances. Politics and near-anarchy do not affect hormones. Almost as an aside, she comes to learn that when in communist times the family spoke of universities with a single letter – M, for example – it was a whispered euphonism for a concentration camp, Maliq in this case.
The book ends with the author taking her high school exams during Albania’s pyramid crisis of 1997 that led to civil war. It is almost a shock as she explains that with excellent grades she left Albania….for good.
This is a child’s view taken from extraordinary diaries. This memoir lyrically captures the quotidian, knowing all too well that the other side of this picture, told so often, was brutal. Most of all it captures the resilience of the Albanian people. Ypi’s images linger long in the mind and are winsomely amusing.
The epilogue offers the essence of the author’s moment of retrospective reflection and is powerfully thoughtful:
‘Freedom is not sacrificed only when others tell us what to say, where to go, how to behave. A society that claims to enable people to realize their potential but fails to change the structures that prevent everyone from flourishing is also oppressive. And yet despite all the constraints, we never lose our inner freedom: the freedom to do what is right.’
Lea Ypi, Free. A child and a country at the end of history, Norton, London & New York 2021.