In Review

Free by Lea Ypi: a ‘gloriously readable’ book

Ypi brings to life what it was like to grow up in Albania in the 1980s

Enver Hoxha’s communist Albania was the “last Stalinist outpost of the 20th century”, said Laura Hackett in The Sunday Times. In Free, her often “astonishing” memoir, Lea Ypi brings to life what it was like to grow up there in the 1980s. It was a world where “certain objects carried extraordinary weight”: old Coca-Cola cans, for instance, were eagerly bought and sold; stones were used as placeholders in queues that might remain static for days.

Ypi also recalls being baffled by certain conversations she overheard at home, said Emma Duncan in The Times. Her parents were forever talking of the degree courses their friends were either completing or dropping out from – even though most were well past university age.

Only with the collapse of the regime in 1990 (when Ypi was 11) was this solved, along with many other puzzles. University had been her family’s code for prison camp – with “graduation” standing for release, and “dropping out” for execution.

The second part of this “gloriously readable” book mordantly documents the aftermath of the regime’s collapse, said Luke Harding in The Observer. Albania embraced liberalism, capitalism and the “strange language of the marketplace”. By the end of the decade, it had experienced “rumbling civil war, gangsterism and military rule”. Ypi left for Italy, and never returned: today, she’s a professor of political theory at the London School of Economics, specialising in Marxism.

This isn’t “one of those eastern European memoirs dripping with ostalgie for a time before the consumer society”, said Stuart Jeffries in The Guardian. Yet Ypi does mourn the loss of some things from her childhood–notably the sense of community that flourished under communism. “Brilliantly observed, politically nuanced and–best of all – funny”, this is “an essential book”.

Allen Lane 336pp £20; The Week Bookshop £15.99

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