In Communist Albania in the 1980s, certain objects carried extraordinary weight. Take a Coca-Cola can. These were so rare that people would buy used, empty cans to repurpose as prized ornaments for their mantelpieces. Or American sweet wrappers — they were particularly prized by school bullies, because if you found one fresh enough, you could still just about smell its previous occupant; a Hubba Bubba, perhaps, or a Juicy Fruit. A stone might take your place in the bread queue while you waited in the milk queue, but if you didn’t make it back in time it would be thrown away, suddenly shorn of its function.
These are just a few of the objects brought to life in Free, Lea Ypi’s astonishing and deeply resonant memoir about growing up in the last days of the last Stalinist outpost of the 20th century. What makes this Baillie Gifford-shortlisted memoir so unforgettable is that we see this world, one about which we know so little, through the eyes of a child.
Eleven-year-old Lea tries her best to interpret the events unfolding around her, and readers are left to decode her impressions. She wonders about the universities that friends and relatives attend, but never seem to return from. She tries to understand why her parents, alone among her neighbors, have no picture of Albania’s dictator “Uncle” Enver Hoxha displayed at home. Most of all, she worries about her surname, which she shares with Xhafer Ypi, a despised former prime minister.
The result of Ypi’s lyrical and evocative writing is the recreation not only of life under totalitarianism, but of childhood itself — the slow process of navigating unspoken rules, of working out the things your parents won’t tell you, and of understanding their fallibility. Ypi conjures up in loving detail her well-meaning, asthmatic father, her headstrong, quietly seething mother, and Nini, her grandmother with a mysterious, unspoken past. We are immersed in the taste of cheap feta cheese, the smell of a stinking salami, the fierce competitiveness of the “Pioneers” summer camp.
Lea Ypi tries to understand why her parents, alone among her neighbors, have no picture of Albania’s dictator “Uncle” Enver Hoxha displayed at home.
What is remarkable about Ypi’s childhood is how abruptly it comes to an end. When Communism suddenly collapses in 1990 her parents reveal to Lea the lies she has been told and the codes they’ve been using for her entire life.
Now a professor of political theory at the London School of Economics, Ypi looks back on her childhood with both fondness and horror. She misses the sense of community under socialism, as neighbors borrowed money, flour, socks, or whatever they needed to get by until next month’s vouchers arrived. But there is also a palpable horror, as she realizes what was really happening to friends and relatives at those “universities”.
The second half of the book recounts Albania’s struggles after Communism. Lea is now a young adult, which leads to a certain loss of narrative immediacy. But we still gain remarkable insights into the post-Communist chaos. Albanian citizens no longer risked imprisonment for thought crimes, or practicing religion. But entire industries were shut down as the economy underwent “shock therapy” in its transition to a free-market system.
This affects the Ypis themselves. Lea’s father is made redundant from his forestry job, and faces a long period of unemployment. Eventually, he gets a job at the port and finds himself in a management role. But then he is told to implement “structural reforms”. What that really means is having to fire all the Roma workers. As they camp outside his house and beg to be kept on, Lea’s father despairs. He feels almost as constrained by the demands of capitalism as he did by the rules of totalitarianism.
When Communism suddenly collapsed, in 1990, entire industries were shut down as Albania’s economy underwent “shock therapy.”
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Albanians try desperately to leave. But Italy, which had previously welcomed the very few who had managed to escape under the nose of the regime, suddenly closes its borders. And when, amid a plague of organized crime, most of the country lose their savings to pyramid schemes, civil war breaks out.
This is not a book of political theory, but Ypi’s own beliefs naturally feed the narrative — we see them beginning to develop in the final section, formed of her teenage diary kept during the civil war. Capitalism, she argues in the epilogue, “claims to enable people to realize their potential, but fails to change the structures that prevent everyone from flourishing”. That can be as oppressive as a socialist regime, just in a different way.
But the energy that propels this book is not politics, but feeling. We feel the cold, wet bronze of Stalin’s statue against young Lea’s cheek as she hugs it with innocent childhood fervor; her sinking stomach when she realizes she’s said the wrong thing; the joy of the first time she tastes a banana. Free is a book about what it means to be free, or even whether such a thing is possible. But it is more fundamentally about humanity, and about the confusions and wonders of childhood. Ypi weaves magic in this book: I was entranced from beginning to end.
Laura Hackett is an assistant books editor for The Sunday Times