Free by Lea Ypi: Funny, precise, accessible, serious memoir of a Stalinist childhood

A rightly acclaimed account of loss of innocence in Albania from a master of subtext

Free: Coming of Age at the End of History
Free: Coming of Age at the End of History
Author: Lea Ypi
ISBN-13: 978-0241481851
Publisher: Allen Lane
Guideline Price: £20

Lea Ypi, a politics professor at the London School of Economics, wanted to write a thoughtful book about concepts of freedom. She succeeded, quite brilliantly, although by means other than she had intended at first.

Few works on political philosophy beg to be reviewed with spoilers in mind, but Ypi, who came of age amid the collapse of Enver Hoxha’s Albania, Europe’s last truly Stalinist state, stumbled on the device of using her family as a microcosm for history. And as readers will discover, they were blessed, and cursed, with novelistic lives.

This book has twists in it, and feints, and foreshadowing. Guns (most, though not all, metaphorical) are deftly planted, and go off at just the right time. Her characters and scenes, though non-fictitious, are skilfully dramatised, and her writing is precise, acute, often funny and always accessible. Yet Free remains, throughout, the serious book that she set out to write.

Like many modern memoirs, Free presents itself as a journey, but in this case, mercifully, that narrative is in no way contrived. The story begins with Ypi’s childhood as an idealistic Marxist schoolgirl who worships a statue of Stalin and grieves at Hoxha’s death. A Pioneer in the communist youth movement, she dreams of the day when, in accordance with the teachings of “Hangel” (an infant mash-up of Hegel and Engels) her world-leading but humanly flawed homeland will evolve into a truly communist, post-historical nirvana.


In these beliefs the child is indulged, with various degrees of enthusiasm, by her family – her hard-boiled mother, dreamer father, and cultured, farsighted grandmother. If only they would give in to Lea’s pleading to hang Comrade Enver’s photograph in their cramped home.

Then in December 1990 Albania followed the rest of eastern Europe into the embrace of what was sold to them as freedom. Everything that the child thought she knew about her country, her world, her family, even herself, turned out to be wrong.

Subtlety and subtext

Her blissful childhood ignorance of the prison camps, secret police and “biographical” persecutions quickly disappeared. But so too did the poetry groups, youth clubs and civic pride that had sustained the bright young Lea. The state jobs that had maintained her family and their neighbours in collective and (as she saw it) more or less cheerful poverty, also faded away.

Meanwhile, the communist cage that locked in Albanians transformed into European barriers to keep them out – visas, border guards, marine patrols and beatings. Ypi has a fiction writer’s gift for subtlety and subtext: the parallels between Albanian migrants in the 1990s, and Middle Eastern refugees today, are all the more powerful for not being hammered home.

Similarly, Ypi adroitly leaves another point to suggest itself: if her Albanian childhood was not as free and as blessed as she had genuinely believed it to be, how free are we now in the capitalist “West”? The story ends with the young Ypi leaving a failed, strife-torn “capitalist” Albania to study abroad. Years later, she is teaching London students about Marx, to the bemusement of her relatives.

“My family equated socialism with denial: the denial of who they wanted to be, of the right to make mistakes and learn from them, to explore the world on one’s own terms. I equated liberalism with broken promises, the destruction of solidarity, the right to inherit privilege, turning a blind eye to injustice.”

Nobody’s history ended in 1990. The dialectic whirls onward. Even Hangel would be dizzy by now.

Yet Free is much more than a historical account of a country we know or care little about, except as a punchline for jokes about poverty and atavism. Just as Ypi and her family watched empires crumble, taking whole realities with them, we too are living in catastrophic times, with the geopolitical certainties that have sheltered us for the past century, for better or worse – the US, UK and more recently, the EU – all in various stages of collapse or decay. This, Ypi warns us, is how it will feel when the levee breaks.

Eerily familiar

Irish readers in particular will find some aspects of this book eerily familiar. The carefully polite interest paid by Ypi’s parents to the Marxist-Leninist pieties she brought home from school will remind many of the distracted look our parents wore when we babbled about the theological mysteries of our looming First Communions. The Irish Catholic Church and its allies in government, not unlike the Albanian communist party, maintained a pervasive system of psychological, political and economic control, enforced by the disappearing of tens of thousands of inconvenient people. This too faded out slowly, and then all at once.

Fellow refugees from the 1970s, reading about her father’s quest to coax Italian TV from a capricious sky, will remember how rural pilgrims dragged antennae on to hillsides and rooftops, or desperately conjured with rabbit’s ears, hoping to escape the endless hours of unsmiling set dancing and solemn folk music on our only legal channel. Albania, at least, had sunshine for most of the year. Ironically, by showing the world its human face, so strange and so familiar, Ypi’s justly acclaimed work may yet give her country a tourism boost.