Free, by Lea Ypi
Growing up under communism
Something about the plain, descriptive tone of this book reminded me of Gorky’s childhood memoir. I am not qualified to tell you if this is intentional but it one of many stylistic choices that make the book so readable and so compelling. We are used, in the eccentric and lonely childhoods that make the subjects of many English memoirs, to an almost rococo elaboration in the prose and situations. How else to elicit the pathos and humour from otherwise almost silent lives? Many British people have to become amateur sociologists just to be able to describe their own experiences adequately. And so the syntax and the scenarios roll.
The plain style, in many ways technically difficult to accomplish, serves a memoir like Free remarkably well. How else to make so sudden and familiar the bizarre world where a young girl hugs Stalin’s statue and otherwise congenial neighbours end up in a bitter feud about whether one of them stole a Coke can? An empty Coke can, at that. English memoirists of the first rank, like James Lees-Milne or Diana Holman-Hunt, would have played such scenes for chuckling bathos. Lea Ypi creates cinematic power from these events, the way a novelist might.
She uses that power to tell a story about the different sorts of freedoms and un-freedoms we all live with, whatever sort of society we are in. Isaiah Berlin, summarising Alexander Herzen, said, “We do not make history and are not responsible for it.” That is certainly true of the characters of this book.
The adults use code words, to conceal the truth from young Ypi. “Biography” is one of those code words. What it really means to be free, to have a biography that defines you, is the major theme. But the layers of narrative about truth and identity unravel without anything ponderous or pretentious. Ypi’s personal narrative is well-constructed and surprising. Ypi’s training as a political scientist means Free much more satisfying as a thought experiment than most novels.
Right now, we find ourselves confronted with the difficult intellectual task: to imagine what it would be like to live in a different period, a different regime, another culture. As Russia continues its genocide, we are shaken from our complacent luck about the times and places where we live by snippets of reportage that have more cinematic power than any art. And the inevitable question: what leads to something like this? Where do these times come from? Ypi’s book is not a direct answer, but the spiral of chaos that replaced communism, the way freedom crushed so many people, is an important part of the story, which she tells remarkably well.
Ypi had planned to write a book of political philosophy,
on freedom and how freedom features in liberal and socialist traditions and political thought… But the more Ypi searched for real life examples to explore this “crisis of liberalism”, the more her thoughts returned to Albania. She realised her world view arose directly from her upbringing.
Biography took over. History happens through individual lives. One way biography trumps history as a mode of thinking about the past is that, whatever political system you grow up under, whatever the truth about determinism, about whether history works through systems or people, it is the case that you can only act as an individual. It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe in free will or consciousness. It doesn’t matter what ideas you subscribe to. Your only choice for living, thinking, understanding, is to accept that you experience the world as an individual. Richard Holmes once wrote:
The great appeal of biography seems to lie, in part, in its claim to be a coherent and integral view of human affairs. It is based on the profoundly hopeful assumption that people really are responsible for their actions, and that there is a moral continuity between the inner and outer man… character expresses itself in action.
The only method, as Harold Bloom said, is the self.
Later on in the Herzen essay, Berlin says, “The present is its own fulfilment, it does not exist for the sake of some unknown future.” We are all immersed in the world we grow up in, and we mostly accept it. If you are wondering what it would be like to grow up in a world where communism was normal, read Free by Lea Ypi.
Free by Lea Ypi
Russian Thinkers by Isaiah Berlin
My Childhood by Maxim Gorky
On 5th April, I’m holding a discussion salon about Red Crosses by Sasha Filipenko, a heartbreaking novel by a young Belarussian writer, that explores the bridge between the past and the present and the way history is lived out through individual lives. I do hope you can join me.
My next tour of the City of London is on Tuesday 22nd March at 14.00. Tickets and information here.