The end – and beginning – of history

ALBANIA / The country's transformation was fraught with difficulties. On the altar of freedom, factories went bankrupt, jobs disappeared, and thousands fled to Italy on overcrowded ships.

Free: Coming of Age at the End of History
Author: Lea Ypi
Publisher: Allen Lane, UK

The family of the schoolgirl Lea Ypi are what her teacher calls «intellectuals.» The word is drips with disapproval. Lea’s father assures her that it simply means people with university degrees. And adds: «Take it easy. In the end, everyone is a worker. We live in a working-class state.»

In this state, lipstick, lux soap, and nylon stockings are a ‘no-no’, except for suspicious ‘tourists’, who with foreign coins, can go to the ‘currency shop’ and get such things. Standing with your face glued to the window in the currency shop is like traveling to another country, something only possible in the imagination. Lea has to console herself that she is lucky to live under socialism. For had she lived in the West, she would have risked becoming a lascar who sang Bob Dylan songs under the bridges. Whatever Bob Dylan might mean.

Codification of reality

Lea spent her childhood in an Albania on the verge of collapse, where communist ideals officially replaced religion. Where most things are scarce, and hour-long queues dominate everyday life. Where the codification of reality is a necessary technique not to be denounced as a traitor. Lea’s parents talk about universities B., S., or M., without explaining what they have on the curriculum or where they are located. It takes a long time before she finds out that ‘university’ is a code word for prison. That taking an exam means serving a prison sentence. That students who become teachers are former prisoners who convert to spies. That when students «voluntarily leave their studies», it actually means they commit suicide.

For Lea, this last Stalinist outpost is simply a home – the only one she knows. The people are equal, helpful, with hopes of building a better world. Then they are swept away by history. One day in December 1990, the year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Lea’s world collapses too. She runs to the Stalin statue with the severed head and clings to its cold iron legs. The world has become absurd to her. Her country has suddenly been officially declared a multiparty state. She is «liberated» without having any idea what she is liberated from. She searches in vain for the right answers, as she does not know the right questions. She has loved and trusted her family. It has been the source of all truth. Now secrets and lies come to light. The family has become the source of all doubt. She stands at the end of history.

Lea Ypi
Lea Ypi

Violence and homesickness

But the time comes when being intellectual is no longer a term of abuse. Today, Lea Ypi teaches political theory at The London School of Economics. It is a curriculum enriched with Ypi’s hard-earned insights. Albania’s transformation was thorny. On the altar of freedom, factories went bankrupt, jobs disappeared. Thousands fled to Italy on overcrowded ships, only to be sent back. Ruthless pyramid schemes led to national bankruptcy, followed by violent conflict. People lived on the knife-edge between shattered illusions and harsh realities.

It is this knife-edge that accelerates the teenage Lea’s maturation process. It cuts into the flesh and allows no hesitation. The society she leaves behind has no future. What she is facing, she must understand as if from a newborn’s cradle. Her parents’ ‘truths’ were lies. When political pluralism makes its entry, they declare they have never supported the party; they have only mastered the slogans. The daughter does not have this choice. She believed everything they said, as she repeated it herself.

The grandmother is the closest thing to a role model. Without complaint. Without hate. She’s someone who, through life’s complications, has maintained control and never shirked responsibility. «Freedom», she insists, «is being aware of what you need.» For Lea, who has never known more than one reality, it’s just a matter of taking note of the facts: Things were one way, and then they became completely different. She was one person, and then she became someone else entirely. Her first trip abroad, to Athens, creates a feeling she has never experienced before – homesickness. She wants to go back to where she feels safe, in the midst of the chaos of dissolution.

Lea spendt her childhood in an Albania on the verge of collapse

«Civil society»

However, the battle for orientation and the confusion of terms present inevitable challenges. Like drugs and other Western perversions, the book reasons, AIDS will soon strike. «It’s freedom», concludes Grandma Nini. «It’s impossible to always have control over people. I suppose that’s why we need these NGOs. We can’t rely on the state. That’s why we need civil society.” ‘Civil society’ was recently added to the political vocabulary, more or less as a replacement for ‘party.’ It’s something that’s meant to exist outside of the state, but at the same time, something that can take its place. It should arise organically, but at the same time, it must be stimulated.

The linguistic mutations abound. ‘Liberalization’ replaces ‘democratic centralism’; ‘privatization’ replaces ‘collectivization’; ‘transparency’ replaces ‘self-criticism’; ‘the fight against corruption’ replaces ‘anti-imperialism’. ‘Transformation’ remains the same, but now stands for the transformation from socialism to liberalism instead of from socialism to communism. Painful phenomena hide behind the words ‘structural reforms.’ The need to cut costs leads to unskilled labor being laid off in droves.

So she stops opening her mouth

Both socialism and capitalism – one must conclude – have different, but obvious downsides. And what it means to become «like the rest of Europe» is by no means a clear matter. When the unrest in Albania in 1997 reaches violent conflict, it also reaches its peak for young Lea. She loses her voice. Every time she tries to say something, only tears come out, so she stops opening her mouth. Today, she interprets it with two short sentences: «In 1990, we had nothing but hope. In 1997, we lost that too.”

She got her voice back: «A society that claims to enable people to fulfill their potential, but fails to design structures that make this possible, is also oppressive.»

Lea Ypis’ Free: Coming of Age at the End of Historyis a good book about life. It is an excellent book about truth.

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Ranveig Eckhoff
Ranveig Eckhoff
Norwegian journalist and regular critic at Modern Times Review.

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