Tales From the Great Beyond

Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History

Lea Ypi

W.W. Norton

267 pp

In one brief story from her book “Free”, the author Lea Ypi describes a late 1980s childhood encounter at an Albanian beach resort. She is crossing the street with her mother when a group of tourists starts shouting at her in French. They are worried young Ypi is stepping into traffic and that she does not see the oncoming cars.

Ypi is old enough, however, to know that cars in Albania do not stop for passive pedestrians. If she and her mother want to cross the street, they have little choice but to throw themselves into harm’s way. Ypi had already learned fairly good French from her grandmother, so she is able to respond to the tourists in real time. The travelers are shocked. They gather around young Ypi. How does this little foreign girl from this alien land understand the grandiose French language? Does Ypi know where France is? One woman shows Ypi a picture of the Eiffel Tower and asks if she can identify the landmark.

Of course she knows where France is. Ypi knows about the Eiffel Tower and Napoleon too. The interaction ends with Ypi charming the visitors by singing a children’s song in French. “The part of me that had been offended at the idea that they knew far less about us than we knew about them found that same detail amusing — empowering even,” Ypi writes.

This a minor scene from Ypi’s excellent book “Free: A Child and A Country at the End of History”, but it’s nonetheless illustrative of the text’s larger value.

Even today, Central and Eastern Europe — never mind Ypi’s native Albania — are viewed as peripheral to Europe’s supposed Western core.

People in the East know quite a bit about the countries to the West, but the opposite rarely holds. Poles do think about Germany, but is the inverse true? Slovakia and Denmark have similarly sized populations, but how many Slovak cities can the average Dane name?

I recall contributing a lengthy article about the Czech Republic to the European edition of Politico several years back. One high level editor was complementary of the story. “We are always happy to have stories from out there,” he said — as if Prague were part of some other solar system.

In fact, those 1980s French tourists in Albania have a lot in common with a twenty-first century Brussels-based journalist. In their minds, Western Europe has news, while Eastern Europe has novelties. As a child, Ypi knew about France because she cared enough to learn. Now, as an adult, her skilled writing and storytelling offers a similar opportunity to readers in English.

Post-communist Ambiguities

Even as Western Europeans and North Americans tend to look past contemporary Central and Eastern Europe, they are even less knowledgeable about the late communist and early post-communist period. So far as there is any coherent image of the period Václav Havel termed “post-totalitarian” — that is, those years when communist regimes ceased to be overtly murderous, and ruled instead through coercion and complicity — it is projected through stylized spy films, tales of rebel literary dissidents or archive photos from great power  summits. 

To an almost comic extent, there is still a total failure to realize that Central and Eastern Europe was (and is) populated by actual, regular people. Those people fell in love, got married, even divorced. Families had happy moments as well as sad ones. Children went to school, adults went to work. People played sports and had parties.

In the Albania of the 1980s and 1990s that Ypi describes, life was somehow normal despite the abnormal conditions.

As the Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal once rationalized, “there were poets in concentration camps, too”. Humans are adaptable, life goes on, and a good portion of Ypi’s book feels like a family story that could happen pretty much anywhere.

Like the classic, fictional Czech film Pelíšky (Cozy Dens), interpersonal relationships — not politics — are the preoccupations of daily life. Heroes and villains exist, but they are not sitting at the table for Christmas dinner.

Ypi’s emotional nuance and her skill as a writer does a better job of conveying this atmosphere than anything I have ever read in English.

There are definitely some oddities to daily life (the etiquette of saving spots in shopping lines to acquire basic goods, for instance), but her quirky family somehow manages to get by one way or another. 

Ypi grew up in Albania, studied in Italy and is now a Professor of Political Theory at the London School of Economics. She has published a series of serious, philosophical books on Immanuel Kant, but “Free” is a far more personal text. She narrates the first half of the book with a childlike sense of whimsy. Taken as a whole, the book is a coming of age tale, a sort-of non-fiction bildungsroman. Ypi’s storytelling voice is personal, and the creative structure of the book sets up a series of surprise plot twists that unfurl about halfway through. I am reluctant to give those away here, but spoil nothing by saying the first half of the book takes place before the December 1990 collapse of the Albanian communist regime — when Ypi was 11 years old — and the second half afterward. 

While the first part of the book details the absurdities of 1980s communism, the latter half focuses on the many peculiarities of the 1990s post-communist era. All of it transpires in a memoirish tone, but Ypi puts her critical theorist toolkit to particularly good use in the second half of the book. She is an astute observer of language, and rattles off the familiar list of vague buzzwords — liberalization, transparency, corruption, structural reforms, road map — that still dominate (or pollute?) political discourse in Central and Eastern Europe.

Victor Orbán and the Open Society Foundation are equally likely to decry corruption, while Andrej Babiš and the US Embassy both abhor entrenched government bureaucracies. For her part, Ypi takes aim at another ambiguous term: civil society.  

It is often said that civil society groups like the Solidarność labor union in Poland, or the Charter ’77 group in Czechoslovakia, were instrumental in bringing down communist regimes. And yet, starting in the 1990s, there was also a campaign to construct the region’s civil society from scratch. “Civil society was supposed to be outside the state but also something that might replace it; it was supposed to emerge organically but also had to be stimulated; it was supposed to bring harmony while acknowledging that some differences could never be resolved,” Ypi writes.

When a Dutch consultant who works for the World Bank moves to Ypi’s neighborhood, everyone starts to call him the “Crocodile Man” — a reference to his short-sleeved shirts with a reptile logo on the breast. This Dutchman liked to speak about ‘transition’. More than 30 years later this term remains necessarily vague. As Ypi notes, Crocodile Man “did not recognize capitalism, or at least he did not think that capitalism was a plausible term to refer to any kind of historical development.”

“The only distinction,” that he recognized was, “between societies in transition and those that had already transitioned.”  

Blip on the Radar

Unlike some other politically-charged memoirs of recent years, Ypi’s book is self-reflective. She has an actual story to tell, and it takes place in a world populated by real people, not — contrary to Anne Applebaum’s “Twilight of Democracy” — silent straw men and women that are set up for the author to pummel. Ypi’s book is deep, yet easy to read and hard to put down. And yet, there are a few passages that gave me pause.

To take one example, Ypi writes of a teenage school friend who flees Albania on a merchant ship to Italy. The Albanian communist regime has collapsed, and people have realized that the port is now open. Crowds begin boarding merchant ships bound for Italy when they realize that nobody is forcing them to remain in the country anymore. Ypi’s friend Elona runs away with an older neighborhood boy named Arian.

At this point in the story, Ypi and Elona are about 13 years old, so Ypi no doubt has clear memories of these events (As we later learn, Ypi stayed behind in Albania before going off to university and the LSE, while Elona ended up working as a prostitute in Milan.). Still, it is hard to reason how Ypi would possibly know details of Elona’s departure to the extent that she could write:

Elona waited for Arian until she could hear the school bell. She was about to leave when he finally showed up. ‘The port is no longer guarded,’ he said. ‘All the container ships are full of people. Everyone’s trying to leave. The soldiers don’t shoot. They have joined the crowds on the boats. I’m going. You coming?’”

One can no doubt imagine some similar conversation must have occurred, but imagine is the key word. Ypi did not witness this interaction personally, and it is unlikely she accessed any archival material to aid her reconstruction. While readers of a memoir recognize that the author — writing about memories from their own life — is telling the story from their own perspective, here Ypi is inserting a scene from someone else’s memoir. She is sketching an event that she did not experience.

Ypi’s intention is to continue painting the rich images that appears elsewhere in the book, but in narrative terms she is coloring outside the lines.

If this were a Hollywood film, sections like these could not be considered a true story, nor based on a true story. They would, rather, be inspired by a true story. Ypi is not reconstructing a conversation from hazy memories, she is creating dialogue. This is fiction writing. It’s what novelists and playwrights do, not scholars or memoirists.

Alas, such dramatized sections amount to a handful of sentences amid an otherwise exquisite book. Ever detailed “Free” also manages to be sweeping in scope. First person stories give the book its heart, but it’s impossible to ignore history’s larger arc (nevermind Ypi’s witty subtitle swipe at Francis Fukayama’s famed Hegelian hyperbole).

Ypi’s grandmother was born in what is now Thessaloniki, Greece — but what was then part of the Ottoman Empire. She attended a French lycée and smoked cigars in the schoolyard. She once attended the wedding of Albania’s prewar leader King Zog. When Ypi’s grandmother returns to Greece to explore reclaiming some of her family’s lost property, she finds herself in legal limbo.

As a result of population swaps that occurred amid the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, myriad shifts in property law over the years, and the realization that Greece and Albania technically remained in a state of war with one another she finds it impossible to reclaim her family property. Not only did history remain, but it still lived and breathed with Ypi’s grandmother who spoke Greek — like the late, great Madeline Albright’s Czech — “with an amusing upper-class accent” that sounds “out of date”.

Grandma lived under emperors, kings, fascists, communists and capitalists. Even amid her single lifetime, 40 years of communist rule proved a mere blip on the big picture radar. In fact, the Cold War — with its bipolar international system, a conflict truly global in scope and a coherent ideological clash —is interesting precisely because it was so unlike the history that came before or after. Continued failure to realize distorts thinking to this very day. Along with intellectual laziness, it’s why virtually every global conflict is touted as some ‘new’ Cold War instead of being analyzed on its own terms.

In the end, Ypi’s book is a personal story about an unique country at a unique time told uniquely well. It more than earns all the praise it is getting.

Benjamin Cunningham

Benjamin Cunningham is the author of “The Liar: How a Double Agent in the CIA Became the Cold War’s Last Honest Man”. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Barcelona.

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