Midway through “Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History,” Lea Ypi’s beguiling memoir of innocence and experience in the communist-era Balkans and beyond, her family stares at the television in December 1990, watching as a Politburo secretary declares the end of the one-party state.
Ypi, a prominent political theorist at the London School of Economics, came of age in Albania, a country of stunning seacoasts and stony uplands, with a national community historically spread across the Muslim, Orthodox Christian and Catholic faiths. For centuries Albanians served as grand viziers and frontier pashas inside the Ottoman Empire. When the empire collapsed after World War I, a local notable, Ahmet Zogu, was elevated to sovereign of an independent kingdom. As King Zog, he became a favorite subject of off-the-beaten-track travel writers. An Italian invasion and Nazi occupation followed, which in turn was pushed back by Albanian leftists, one of the rare cases in which local partisans defeated the fascists more or less on their own.
Albanian communists under Enver Hoxha soon established a regime that styled itself as a bastion of true Stalinism. One by one, socialist allies fell away — Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, China — as Albanian leaders denounced any opening to the West as sellout revisionism. It took more than five years after Hoxha’s death in 1985, and more than a year after the Berlin Wall crumbled, for Albanian communism to fade into history.
This chronology formed the background to Ypi’s childhood, but the chapters of “Free” are intimate, filigreed stories of a taken-for-granted life devolving into uncertainty. There are eccentric relatives, the smell of sun cream wafting off tourists, a neighborhood feud over a Coca-Cola can and then an act of life-changing vandalism: A protester lops off the head of a statue of Stalin, whom Ypi, a star pupil, had come to revere as a model of visionary heroism. It was a shock to hear her family start referring to political leaders as “bastards.”
“Free” is the most probing memoir yet produced of the undefined “transition” period after European communism. But it is more profoundly a primer on how to live when old verities turn to dust. Ypi has written a brilliant personal history of disorientation, of what happens when the guardrails of everyday life — a family’s past, the signposts of success, the markers of a normal future — suddenly fall away. “He knew what he was against but found it hard to defend what he stood for,” Ypi writes of her father, a sometime revolutionary puffing on an asthma inhaler, who struggled “to carry forward his moral commitments without someone or other interpreting them on his behalf.”
On the streets and in classrooms, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels gave way to economists Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek. U.S. Secretary of State James Baker proclaimed a new slogan — “Freedom works” — before cheering crowds in the capital, Tirana. A local political candidate showed up at Ypi’s door asking to borrow her father’s gray socks. An American democracy-assistance program had told him that proper politicians wear dark footwear with their suits. The family later spotted the man on television, the socks peeking out beneath his trousers, and later still with bodyguards and a Mercedes. The socks were lost to the transition, and so in a way was her father, his grand ideas traded in for a set of whittled-down truths: “what he knew, what he was, what he tried to be, what he wanted to see happen.”
Ypi’s mother briefly remade herself in the post-communist mode, working with a nongovernmental organization, hosting delegations, wielding new terms such as “civil society” and “knowledge transfer.” But then the family savings disappeared in a pyramid scheme. In 1997 Albania melted into civil war, a period that Ypi renders in terrifying staccato via her own teenage diary.
The political theorist Isaiah Berlin famously distinguished two concepts of liberty in the Western canon. Negative liberty was the right to be left alone, to construct a life of meaning unencumbered by state intervention. Positive liberty was the right not to be left adrift, to enjoy access to some of life’s benefits regardless of background or circumstance. For the international lenders and consultants who descended on Albania and other parts of the world in the 1990s, negative liberty was the state of nature, positive liberty the delusion that lay behind decades of nonsense and tyranny. Getting back to reality required privatization and monetized wealth, which in turn led to happiness and human flourishing — except when it didn’t, which simply evidenced the need for more of the right kind of freedom.
But “what freedom is that?” Ypi’s teacher asks at one point about capitalist countries, where good schools cost money and people are persuaded to buy more than they can consume. Ypi’s future would lie abroad, as a publicly engaged philosopher. In her research and teaching, however, she came around to the same question, about her past as well as about the liberal, capitalist and globalist present. The deepest freedom turns out to be the ability to ask hard questions about comfortable ideas, to see the world in unfamiliar ways, to live like a grown-up.
The judgment of history usually arrives not as praise or condemnation but as bafflement. How could they have lived like that? “We had no categories to describe what occurred, no definitions to capture what we had lost, and what we gained in its place,” Ypi writes. Reading “Free” today is not so much a flashback to the Cold War as a glimpse of every society’s possible pathway, a postcard from the future, like the one of the Eiffel Tower that Ypi picks up from a French tourist on the beach.
Philosophies have a half-life. Countries decline. Old virtues turn into self-evident vices or, worse, convictions that get remembered as inanities. In the swirl of history, we cling to what we know, what we are, who we try to be, what we want to see happen.
Charles King teaches at Georgetown University and is the author of “Gods of the Upper Air” and other books.
A Child and a Country at the End of History
By Lea Ypi
Norton. 267 pp. $27.95