Lea Ypi’s FREE has divided Albanian readers, and that division cuts right through me. It is as though I receive two pictures, and try as I might to fiddle with the antenna, I still can’t get my mental screen to go xham. One picture, the aesthetic, I admire very much. The other concerns the depiction of communism in Albania, which has left me baffled like many Albanian readers.
Ypi is without question a talented writer, and before I take issue with the book, let me highlight some of her writing chops. “The Crocodile” chapter, as one example, is masterful on multiple levels. Technically, Ypi must delineate a motley crew of major and minor characters buzzing in and out of a party scene, capturing the mood, food, and music and getting the pacing right for the humour to land. This alone is impressive enough. Ypi then sends the whole scene spiralling around the book’s thematic core, but in a way that makes fun of itself. What it means to be “free” is briefly detached from its seriousness and made the subject of comic relief in some of the funniest pages of any memoir/novel I have read.
This chapter also strikes me as the most self-consciously Albanian, maybe because I’ve been in that party scene more times than I care to admit. The words and gestures of the men and women are those of my parents and aunts and uncles. Of course, “Kush kërcen Napolonin,” that obnoxious song so popular in the ‘90s, is thundering in our ears. I’m suddenly back there, except this time I’m enjoying myself. Recall that it is here, too, that Ypi puts “Albanianness” on display for the guest of honour, Vincent Van Den Berg. In doing so, she flatters us with our own specialness and with the views we have of ourselves about our hospitality and cuisine. Ypi then observes us through the eyes of our guests, and our uniqueness is rendered run of the mill.
A flair for weaving such thesis/antithesis tensions lends an aura of ambiguity that stimulates reading. Minor parts aside, Lea, the protagonist, hardly exercises agency. We see a narrator afflicted with none of the internal contradictions that make a character pop off the page. Our young heroine is generally referred to by nicknames – 471, Stuffed Pepper (common enough), Brigatista, Comrade Mamuazel, Leushka, and my favourite, Qypi – which seem to hide more than to reveal. Regarding this heroine, like the inside of a qyp, or in the famous words of Gertrude Stein, “there’s no there there.” Presumably, we can take up the space Ypi leaves us with our own experiences and botkuptim and get busy synthesizing. This interpretation strikes me as reasonable when we consider the generalized form the title takes in Albanian – Të lirë, instead of E lirë – and the use of polyphony in exploring its theme. Consequently, I am prepared to regard FREE as an invitation to a grand conversation, one not to be missed.
Let me strike a few notes of my own vis-à-vis a petite critique with that in mind.
There is a stark asymmetry in the way Ypi portrays communism and liberalism. We sure see the extreme of one in 1997 with pyramid schemes and chaos in the street. Seventeen-year-old Lea must move her bed away from the window from possible stray bullets shot into the air, which did kill people. People die, like the bully Flamur. Her friend, Elona, ends up mired in sex trafficking. There is only bleakness in Lea’s future. Ypi finds this time so difficult to render like the rest of the book that she puts down her diary as she’d written it then. When we read of her crying from sheer hopelessness, we understand and sympathize.
But what are the extreme moments in the communist part of the book? The fetishizing of Coca Cola cans? The long queues? The coded language regarding the prisons and the various sentences? The Ypi home is transfixed by foreign TV commercials, as we all were in those days, and it is funny and sad and telling. Yes, Ypi hails from a well-known persecuted déclassé family, and her parents have hidden this from her to avoid it affecting her future. Her family biography is bad, but also not that bad. I didn’t know anyone who got a university education in those days, mostly thanks to “biography.” Ypi is still somehow raised by two parents who have pulled it off. This is a childhood in a bubble. Under communism, sure. But to invoke the ever-invokable Gertrude Stein again, “a bubble is a bubble is a bubble.”
However, this is the precise vantage point from which what life was “really like” under communism has been broadcast the world over, most recently in Financial Times. This is not a matter of marketing or book reviewing. FREE juxtaposes 45 years of communism with seven years of liberalism and three months of near civil war. What perspective we get or what conclusion we might draw, certainly about Albanian history, is bound to be skewed.
Let’s consider the central “The End of History” chapter more closely. We’ve had mostly appearance up to this point, and now comes essence. Personally, I am at the edge of my seat.
Since Ypi’s grandmother is the moral pillar of the book, it makes sense that Ypi should peal the curtain through revelations about her. “By the time she was forty,” Ypi tells us, “many of her relatives had been executed or had committed suicide, and those who’d survived had ended up in mental hospitals, in exile or in prison.” A powerful revelation. Or it should/could be. Up to this point, the book’s premise has rested on Lea’s naïveté. Lea has believed in the Party like children in Christmas films believe in Santa. Now, this is the coming-of-age moment. This should shock our heroine to the core, lead her to ask difficult questions about her family, examine the world she grew up in, and thereby grow up herself. There’s no turning back from this. How many relatives have been executed? What are their stories? Earlier, we hear about the maternal great-grandfather who had jumped off a building to his death to escape torture. Who else? Was any of them dumped in a secret grave, as my own great-uncle was, after being tortured to death in Burrel prison?
Indeed, this warrants some elaboration, maybe something visceral. But, no, the passage just moves on. What little we do get about the maternal great-grandfather, the focus is on his final words, “Allahu Akbar,” that serve to identify him generally as a Muslim believer, not as an individual. We get more visceral details about the Red Brigades and about Feltrinelli. Even the bully, Flamur, is humanized enough such that when he blows himself up in the 1997 chaos, we feel sorry for him. But there is hardly one specific detail to stamp itself on our minds that might individualize anybody executed by the regime. They register impersonally, abstractly. It comes as no surprise when our heroine even wonders, “if maybe my family deserved the punishment inflicted on them.” You could say that young Lea’s worldview is so warped by the Party that, of course, she would wonder that. Ypi, after all, describes her young self as being “dazzled” by the revelations. But this is a section where the adult Ypi is interpreting things for us, and my overall impression is one of struggle on the author’s part to make up her mind about how to feel about the fall of communism. The aura of ambiguity feels a little less artistic, a little more suspect.
Notice how Ypi then contextualizes everything. She writes: “For the Party, the sacrifice of individual preferences was a matter of historical necessity, the cost of transition to a future better condition” (Italic mine). Just read that again and reflect on the word choice. I don’t know about you, but that was a hurl-the-book-at-the-wall moment for me.
Is this nitpicking? Earlier, when revelations come about grandma, Ypi writes: “At thirty-two, she started working in labour camps.” Started working? I guess it was a job, sure. I guess we could describe the interrogations that sent folks there as job interviews. Historically, there was also all that unpaid labour done through “volunteering” and through obligatory service like zbor that we could take at face value. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s basically modulating a much harsher reality.
In any case, let’s be clear: For the Party, the sacrifice was of individuals, thousands of innocent lives, that was a matter of historical necessity, the cost of transition to a better future.
No life is secure, and no one is free who is a subject in another man’s dream. That man for us was Enver Hoxha. Not only could we never utter an unkind word to Xhaxhi Enver or to Nana Parti, but we had an obligation to glorify them constantly. “Lavdi, lavdi, lavdi,” we sang, as Ypi undoubtedly remembers Psychotic is one word to describe them. But maybe that’s just me.
And maybe the big reveal is that essence, in the end, is just more appearance. There is certainly truth to that, and very philosophical. However, Ypi will later devote as many pages to preparing for a trip to Greece with grandma as she does for “The End of History”, which forms the book’s subtitle. Forgive me if I expected a little more.
Here’s a counterpoint to this from a fellow pioneer and an honorary classmate of Ypi.
I was born in 1979, like the author, but communism ends very differently for me. It ends on December 20, 1990, on the border between Albania and Montenegro. It ends with my uncle dying in my father’s arms, with my cousin calling to her nine-year-old daughter that she’d never see again, alive or dead. We were fleeing on two rafts, and the Albanian border patrol opened fired on us, killing four people. It wasn’t enough that the border patrol should shoot to kill, but they had to churn the water, throwing many of us into the Buna River that runs past the border. The patrol boat then headed for the other raft, where everyone was arrested. We crawled back onto our raft, terrorized, collecting children in the stream in pitch darkness, while also seeking the bank, not knowing we had crossed into Montenegro. But the stream had rolled on, and we had. Three bodies were buried at a local cemetery the next day, with the help of an Albanian family that took us in that night, having been awoken by all that machine gunfire. Three bodies were exhumed a few years later and reburied in Albania. The mother of that nine-year-old girl died recently of cancer and would spend her final days writing poems to her daughter, who, God only knows, washed out to sea.
Our raft was small, and it is by chance that the bullets landed on my relatives, not on me. But I remember that night very well, and I remember how insignificant you felt with the blazing AK47 pointed at you, the thundering sound of machine gunfire, and me crawling behind a fallen body for protection. Life is a preference like you wouldn’t believe, so perhaps Ypi is right.
“For some,” Ypi notes, “those were the days in which history came to an end.” How true that proved for those four that night! Along with my great uncle I had mentioned above, that is five people, including a woman and a child, among my relatives alone murdered at the hands of that regime. Today, there is no official memorial to them and thousands like them in Albania, a country still haunted by their ghosts. Just the act of dumping over 6000 bodies of the executed in secret graves says something about the cruelty and moral compass of our communist leaders then, the essence of which was still reverberating in 1997, and right on down to the rot in the marrow of the progeny in power today.
Of course, we can’t hold it against Ypi that her life under communism wasn’t so terrible. That’s not the issue. But we might have ground to wonder why Ypi renders the failures of one system in ‘97 at a fever pitch, which we understand, but why she then downplays communist failures to the degree that she does, which we don’t understand. To invoke JFK’s speech at the Berlin Wall, liberalism doesn’t build walls to keep people in or shoot on defenceless people if they wish to leave it. We have communism to praise for that unique achievement. Ypi has said that she isn’t trying to compare the two systems but rather to examine them according to the goals they set for themselves and how they fail to meet them. I would argue that concerning FREE, it isn’t a question of comparison but of an asymmetrical juxtaposition resulting from what is put in and what is left out. As such, I don’t think it is unreasonable to conclude, based on what Ypi leaves out, that dashje pa dashje she curates communism for the reader, echoing how her parents once curated it for her. Her parents had good reason. What reason has Ypi? Che ne so? If only the story came first, then the theory to make sense of it. But first comes the theory, then comes the tale, inevitably in the service of confirmation bias.
“We do what we can; we give what we have,” says Henry James of writers, and Lea Ypi has given us a lot. I won’t deny her that. Thanks to Ypi, details of common childhood scenes are now on the mental maps of readers the world over. Plus, when is the last time, or any time for that matter, that somebody put Albania so regularly on international papers in a positive light? Her success is to be celebrated and be inspired by it. Surely, if anyone has earned a free pass on a few hurl-the-book-at-the-wall moments, it is she. And I grant it is no picnic to stare into that dark communist abyss. I just didn’t expect to see that task shirked so casually either.