European Novel(ties): FREE by Lea Ypi
This book is a must-read for EPS students. Lea Ypi’s tender memoir follows the complex political realities of growing up in Stalinist Albania, and the turmoil that followed its decline in the 1990s. Written through the eyes of her young, coming-of-age self, the book asks difficult questions about the meaning of freedom. A remarkable read, in which the author shares the story of her life in both a moving and humorous way.
‘I never asked myself about the meaning of freedom until the day I hugged Stalin.’ This first sentence of Lea Ypi’s memoir ‘FREE’ immediately draws you into her journey of navigating a world that she has yet to understand. Born in Albania in 1979, young Lea seeks her place in a country increasingly isolated from the rest of the world, under the strict hand of authoritarian ruler Enver Hoxha.
Published in 2021, the book starts with the author’s encounter with a beheaded statue of Stalin, following student protests in December 1990. Something she can’t get her head around is why the protesters were shouting ‘freedom!’ and ‘democracy!’ if they were already the freest country on earth. They were on the right side of history, they had real freedom, like her teacher Nora always said in moral education class. Whilst in capitalism, ‘people claimed to be free and equal, but this was only on paper because only the rich could take advantage of the rights available’. Lea thought she understood the world, but on that rainy day in December, everything changed overnight.
‘FREE’ is like the Jojo Rabbit of Communism. Separated into two parts, Part 1 follows the day-to-day in Communist Albania, where Lea's life is filled with love for Uncle Enver and enthusiasm for the Party. From playing Fascists and Partisans, and using rocks to solidify your spot in the grocery queue, to a fallout between neighbours over a Coca-Cola can displayed on the TV. Increasingly, Lea starts questioning whether the reality in which she lives is as free and democratic as she believes it to be. She starts wondering why her family is both the source of all certainty, and of all doubt. From evasive answers to doublespeak in the kitchen, and most importantly: why is there still no picture of her beloved Uncle Enver on the wall?
Part 2 concerns the aftermath of December 12, 1990, when Albania became a multi-party state. When she was someone, and then ‘became someone else.’ It was a time in which the ideologies of Marx and Engels were replaced by those of Hayek and Friedman. From striving for communist freedom, to neoliberalism through deregulation, liberalisation, and privatisation. Changing social structures, new interpretations of freedom, and messy transitions lead to her disenchantment with the realities she now lives in.
FREE teaches us about the loss of innocence and the formation of our own truths. It is the kind of book that needs to be read with a marker in hand, to highlight all of its insightful reflections on the contemporary world, whilst never feeling dense or dry. Most impressively, it is both serious and thought-provoking, as well as heartwarming and hilarious. Perhaps my only criticism of this book is that it is only 313 pages long.
About the author
Lea Ypi was born in Tirana, Albania in September 1979. She grew up during the fall and turmoil of Communist Albania. She is now a professor of Political Theory at the London School of Economics. Her first trade book FREE won the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje prize, and was selected as Book of the Year by the Guardian, Financial Times, and Sunday Times, among others. It has been translated into 20 languages.