Teresa Cherfas reviews ‘Free: Coming of Age at the End of History’ by Lea Ypi

30 August 2022

By Teresa Cherfas

Teresa Cherfas reviews Free: Coming of Age at the End of History by Lea Ypi. Paperback 336pp ISBN-9780141995106 (Allen Lane, London, 2022)

Lea Ypi is a professor in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics, where she lists her key expertise as Marxism and critical theory.  The story of the journey that brought her to defend Marxism in the twenty-first century is told in this memoir of growing up in Albania ‘at the end of history.’ 

Although set in Albania, her story could be set in any number of eastern-bloc countries.  As velvet revolutions overwhelmed the regimes of the bloc, the catch-phrases of capitalism and liberal democracy replaced the old socialist slogans; the international experts and election observers who arrived in their wake were like the vanguard of a new revolution that would sweep away the old and bring these countries into the fold of western liberal democracies to live ‘like the rest of Europe.’

Towards the end of her book, with the maturity of age and her own lived experience, Ypi encapsulates what that yearning to be ‘like the rest of Europe’ meant in practice.  It’s like looking back at those heady years as at some sort of mirage, receding through the other end of a telescope:

Europe was like a long tunnel with an entrance illuminated by bright lights and flashing signs, and with a dark interior, invisible at first. … It didn’t occur to anyone to bring torches, or to draw maps, or to ask whether anyone ever makes it out of the tunnel, or if there is only one exit or several, and if everybody goes out the same way.

Ypi’s coming of age story is joyous and captivating, revealing in its small details from the remembered perspective of a one-party-state indoctrinated child.  The observation, intelligence and sheer literary virtuosity that she brings to it are rare, even if her story is not unique. But Albania was uniquely cut off, and to delve into what sometimes feels more surreal than everyday stories of Uncle Enver’s communist idyll with Leushka as our guide is a rare privilege. 

In December 1990, Lea was eleven years old, fiercely intelligent and bright.  As other countries in the ‘revisionist bloc’ (Hoxha’s name for countries that had wandered from the true path of communism) were engulfed by student protests, Albania’s capital, Tirana, succumbed too and what had begun as unrest in the capital spread to Durrës, the Adriatic port, where Lea lived with her family.  The protestors’ shouts of ‘Freedom!’ and ‘Democracy!’ echoed through the streets, their marching footsteps – deafening.  Terrified, Lea takes refuge from the mob in the embrace of Uncle Stalin, on his plinth in the garden of the Palace of Culture.  Hugging his knees, she looks up at his face for reassurance.  But Stalin has no head; he has been decapitated.  It was then that Lea’s world began to unravel:   

I wanted to know why everyone demanded freedom if we were already one of the freest countries on Earth, as teacher Nora always said. … The patterns that shaped my childhood, those invisible laws that had given structure to my life, my perception of the people whose judgements helped me make sense of the world – all these things changed forever in December 1990. 

Until that time, Lea’s own family was the source of her vexation.  For a start, her father shared a name with the country’s tenth prime minister, whom teacher Nora called ‘an Albanian quisling’ and every year when his name came up, Lea had to explain that it was no more than a coincidence.  Another sore point was her parents’ obfuscation when she pleaded with them to put up a framed photograph of Uncle Enver; if ever she mentioned this in public, she was roundly scolded, and told never ever to say such things outside the house.  Lea knew many things went unsaid and wondered if that catch-all word ‘biography’ was the key, but if she ever caught them talking about the past, the grown-ups just changed the subject and moved on.  ‘Biography’ was the mysterious determinant in people’s lives and careers; whenever she brought a new friend home, Lea’s parents wanted to know their ‘biography’.  Lea’s mother, a former chess champion, claimed, ‘the beauty of chess is that it has nothing to do with biography.  It’s all up to you.’  But she never could get an answer to the question of her own ‘biography’.  

Lea describes the lurking sense of terror, mystery and danger that accompanied her childhood because she knew her family was not like others.  She shares a bedroom with Nini, her paternal grandmother, who insists on speaking French to her (another source of embarrassment among her peers, who call her ‘Comrade Mamuazel’): 

I could not explain to myself the lingering feeling I had then, and which I am able to articulate only now, that the life I lived, inside the walls of the house and outside, was in fact not one life but two, lives that sometimes complemented and supported each other but mostly clashed against a reality I could not fully grasp.

How many other Eastern-bloc children had experienced that inside-outside life, their parents wanting to protect them but at the same time fearful that their own children could denounce them? 

In the years that followed the afternoon in December 1990, when Lea had looked up to find that Stalin had no head, her inside-outside lives began to merge.  

Ypi’s grandmother was an Arnaut, the Ottoman Turks’ name for the Albanian minorities in the empire.  Nini grew up in Salonica with her first cousin, Cocotte.  When Cocotte came to stay, she shared Nini and Lea’s room.  Lea’s inside life expanded as she eavesdropped on their conversation:

During those frozen winter evenings, our tiny bedroom became a continent, a continent of shifting borders, forgotten heroes of armies that no longer existed, deadly fires, exuberant balls, property feuds, weddings, deaths and new births.  I felt the urge to understand, to connect my childhood to that of Nini and Cocotte, to picture their world, to rearrange years that seemed without time, to remember characters I had never known, or to ascribe meaning to events I had never witnessed. I felt confused and sometimes frightened by the sheer chaos of the things I heard about, adults who had lost track of each other, boats that never sailed, children that never lived. But just when I thought my efforts to understand were about to yield results, Nini and Cocotte stopped speaking in French and suddenly switched to Greek. 

The certainty of her childhood was being upturned with each new piece of the puzzle.  Lea watches as the adults get swept up in the new freedoms that follow from Albania’s first democratic elections.  One by one, the conundrums of childhood start to make sense, to have meaning.  At long last, she understood what it meant to say that someone had ‘gone to university’, or that they had ‘dropped out’, or that someone had ‘finished studying, but was still working’.  The codes were cracked and she began to understand the powerful reach of the Sigurimi, Albania’s secret security service.

New faces arrive in town.  Her father meets a group of marines on the bus and takes up their offer to learn English.  It is only later that he realises they are Mormons, not marines.  Then there is the man they call the Crocodile, a man named Van de Berg, who always wears a shirt with a small crocodile on it, its wide-open mouth displaying sharp, bared teeth.  As Lea notes, he was a missionary too, of sorts, from the World Bank, his Bible, a pink newspaper.  Van de Berg was an expert in transitions: 

He also lived in his own kind of transition. He was always on the move from one transitional society to the next.  I remember only one question that embarrassed him even more than when we asked him how much he earned: where had he previously lived?

Free is populated with characters, all of whom are effectively in transition.  There is the local doctor, former Party member turned opposition party candidate, who learns from a US State Department brochure that if you want to win an election, you need the right colour socks and white won’t cut it.  He comes canvassing for grey socks in a purple T-shirt with ‘Sweet dreams, my lovely friends’ emblazoned on it.  The next time Lea sees him, he’s swapped the T-shirt for a Rolex.  Then there are all the people who leave Albania by any ship going, hoping to transition to a better life in Italy.  Many transition to the afterlife, dying in their hundreds on overcrowded boats not fit to sail; others to a life of internment in Italian detention centres or, if they are young and female, trafficked in the sex trade.  No longer classed as political migrants – with the death of Communism, there was no more dissent –  they were all economic migrants now. The irony was not lost on Ypi:

The West had spent decades criticising the East for its closed borders, funding campaigns to demand freedom of movement, condemning the immorality of states committed to restricting the right to exit. Our exiles used to be received as heroes. Now they were treated like criminals.

Ypi points out that it was then that border guards, patrol boats and migrant detention centres were first introduced in southern Europe:

They would soon perfect a system for excluding the most vulnerable and attracting the more skilled, all under the banner of ‘protecting our way of life.’ 

To read these lines in Brexit Britain is sobering.  It is estimated that six out of ten illegal immigrants to Britain are Albanians.  The British government has even garnered the cooperation of Albanian police to help turn migrants away on the shores of Kent.  And, yes, for the most part they are economic migrants promised heaven on earth by Albanian criminal gangs.  

When Lea’s father lands a new job as General Director of the port, he learns a new term for the times: ‘structural reforms.’   They’re in his garden and at his gate, ‘their faces pressed against the metal rails, like frozen prisoners behind bars.’  These are Roma men and women whose jobs are threatened by the Crocodile’s ‘road-map’ to transition:  

‘Van de Berg says they’ve done it in Bolivia. I’ve never been to Bolivia. These people don’t even know where Bolivia is. What does that even mean, they’ve done it in Bolivia – so what ? Look at them. They’re not machines. They’re people. They have tears in their eyes, and sweat on their brows. They would have hope too, if there was any left. Go to the window. Stand there and take a look. Structural reforms, they are called. Structural reforms.’

He grasps his asthma pump as if it were ‘a miniature Molotov cocktail.’ 

In the final section of Free, Ypi draws on her own diary entries for 1997: a time the history books refer to as the Albanian Civil War. For Albanians, it’s enough to mention the year.  It was then that the get-rich-quick pyramid schemes were introduced, promising a return on personal investments that was, literally, too good to be true. In 1997, they collapsed like dominos, and people, including the Ypis, lost all their savings. From Lea’s diary entry for 14th March:

The country is in the hands of gangsters. It’s total anarchy. … It’s like a whole country committing suicide. … It’s so much worse than in 1990. At least there was hope in democracy then. Now there is nothing, just a curse. … These gunshots. It’s like they explode in my head. I just can’t stop the tears. Every time I try to speak, I get tears in my eyes instead.

She’s lost her voice.  It’s not a metaphor but the effect of trauma.  Her words on March 25th demonstrate her growing cynicism: 

Soon there will be foreign soldiers: Italian, Greek, Spanish, Polish. International peacekeepers. I guess it’s going to be good for the economy, good for prostitution.

Two thousand people lost their lives in the protests and chaos of 1997. 

It was Francis Fukiyama who coined the phrase, ‘the end of history,’ some thirty years ago.  There was supposed to be no more history to record.  The West had won the Cold War and liberal democracy was the end game of history. 

Ypi’s memoir is an important counter to Fukiyama’s 1992 book. So many of the characters and so many of the events she describes resonate with Russia in the 1990s and Russians’ experience of that tumultuous decade.  Indeed it is that collective memory that Putin exploits to this day, effectively handing him on a plate his mandate to rule for the past 22 years.  

Is it any wonder, with soaring energy prices, record inflation, unbridled consumerism, unexamined privilege and inherited opportunity, that Ypi finds valuable currency in Marxist critical theory today?  And, yes, dear reader, it wasn’t just a coincidence that her father shared a name with the ‘Albanian quisling’; that was her ‘biography.’   

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