In all the years of writing my blog I’ve featured just two books by an Albania writer. In 2012 it was Spring Flowers, Spring Frost and the following year The Fall of Stone City, both by Nobel laureate Ismail Kadare. With over two dozen of his works translated into English, there was a good chance if I featured anything by an Albania author it would be something by Kadare. But recently a new Albanian writer has taken the stage. In January of this year Lea Ypi’s memoir Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History was released in the United States generating considerable acclaim. After reading favorable things about it on both The Captive Reader and What’s Nonfiction I knew I had to give it a chance. Then a week or so ago I was in the mood to read something for Rose City Reader‘s European Reading Challenge so I downloaded a copy through Overdrive. This book is definitely worth the hype and should easily make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction. (Just yesterday Rennie of What’s Nonfiction named Free to her list of “10 New Release Favorites of the Year So Far.”)
For close to half a century the small Adriatic nation was ruled with an iron fist by Enver Hoxha, a Stalinist dictator hell-bent on running the country according to his uncompromising communist vision. Freedoms of religion, expression and the press were nonexistent, as was private enterprise. Political parties other than the country’s ruling communists were outlawed. Over time this puritanical approach became too much for even Albania’s communist allies. Starting with the USSR and its satellites in the mid-1950s one by one they severed ties with Albania with the last one, China breaking off relations in 1978. Rejecting both the capitalist West and the “revisionist” Socialist Bloc an ever defiant Albania stood alone and isolated.
Lea Ypi could not have come of age during a more momentous time in Albania’s history. In the mid-1980s as a school girl, Enver Hoxha, the only leader she, and much of the population has ever known died. After his death, things slightly loosed up a bit. Her family, like others were allowed brief visits abroad, but the nation’s new communist leaders enacted no sweeping reforms. But in an isolated nation where empty Coke cans thoughtless discarded by visiting tourists were treasured by impoverished Albanians and prominently displayed like expensive status symbols something even as simple as a plastic air sickness bag mystified young Lea on her first trip outside the country.
What makes sets Free apart from other memoirs of life under communist rule is you see all this monumental history unfold through the eyes of an innocent child. Over the course of the memoir you learn just how oppressive life was under Albania’s communist overlords as one by one the white lies and not so white lies she was fed by her parents and other adults are gradually exposed. (Like the euphemism “university” used in place of prison.) The end result is a fast-paced read that at times feels surreal.
Albania, through fits and starts, attempted its path towards democracy and free market capitalism while coinciding with the author’s own journey towards adulthood. Whether or not her nation can ultimately achieve this goal is unclear, but in the end she left Albania to attend college abroad and never returned. With no small amount of irony looks back and compares her country’s rocky attempts to shed its communist past and recast itself as “European” as having much in common with Albania’s much earlier struggles to build a socialist state that would serve as a springboard towards an eventual communist utopia. Both were blind faith exercises with the understanding today’s painful sacrifices will help create a freer and more equitable tomorrow. Perhaps only time will tell which path ultimately was best.