Thursday, 25 November 2021

Free by Lea Ypi

Free: Coming of Age at the End of History by Lea Ypi
Published by Penguin on the 28th October 2021.

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

'I never asked myself about the meaning of freedom until the day I hugged Stalin. From close up, he was much taller than I expected.'

Lea Ypi grew up in one of the most isolated countries on earth, a place where communist ideals had officially replaced religion. Albania, the last Stalinist outpost in Europe, was almost impossible to visit, almost impossible to leave. It was a place of queuing and scarcity, of political executions and secret police. To Lea, it was home. People were equal, neighbours helped each other, and children were expected to build a better world. There was community and hope.

Then, in December 1990, a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, everything changed. The statues of Stalin and Hoxha were toppled. Almost overnight, people could vote freely, wear what they liked and worship as they wished. There was no longer anything to fear from prying ears. But factories shut, jobs disappeared and thousands fled to Italy on crowded ships, only to be sent back. Predatory pyramid schemes eventually bankrupted the country, leading to violent conflict. As one generation's aspirations became another's disillusionment, and as her own family's secrets were revealed, Lea found herself questioning what freedom really meant.

Free is an engrossing memoir of coming of age amid political upheaval. With acute insight and wit, Lea Ypi traces the limits of progress and the burden of the past, illuminating the spaces between ideals and reality, and the hopes and fears of people pulled up by the sweep of history.

I cannot truly imagine just how bewildering it must be to have been raised with one set of beliefs, ones which you wholeheartedly embraced and thought you understood, then, just as you were about to embark on your adult life, the society that underpinned those beliefs was abruptly ripped away. You discovered that your immediate family had hidden most of your history from you and your foundations weren't the solid rock you had previously relied upon. This is Lea Ypi's early life and her book, Free, does a wonderful job of allowing readers insights into the nations that were socialist Albania, transitional Albania and, sadly, civil war-ridden Albania.

I was reminded at times of Haya Leah Molnar's memoir, Under A Red Sky, by the way in which Lea Ypi's family kept the truth about themselves from their children which ultimately led to divisions with each generation having very different experiences, expectations and political philosophies. I found it interesting that Ypi is now professor of political theory at the London School of Economics as I could see her being drawn towards philosophical study towards the end of Free as she attempts to make sense of the chaos consuming her country. 

Free is a very readable memoir and one which explores and explains quite complex issues in an accessible way. I appreciated how being shown Lea's childhood solely from her younger perspective allowed me to also see why she was so convinced of the benefits of socialism. Her love of 'Uncle Enver' reflected what I learned through reading Enver Hoxha by Blendi Fevziu. There are hints from part-hidden parental conversations that perhaps not everything is as rosy and clear as her teacher, Leta, makes out, but no one can be openly honest and Lea doesn't yet know how many layers of secrets are concealed. I enjoyed Free as a coming-of-age story as well as an eloquent history of post-war Albania.

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