One wet afternoon in December 1990, little Lea Ypi ran across Tirana to the garden of the Palace of Culture. Making sure no one could see her, she pressed her warm cheek to the cold thigh of a statue and tried to make her arms encircle its knees. And then she looked up to savour the figure’s friendly moustache, only to suppress a scream. Hooligan demonstrators calling for freedom and democracy had decapitated one of her favourite uncles.
Ypi at the time had two favourite uncles, both communists, both dead, neither actual relations. Albania’s leader Enver Hoxha was one, Joseph Stalin the other, and her superbly unreliable teacher, Nora, had taught her student to venerate both. After all, was it not Marx’s teacher Hangel (not Hegel, Nora clarified), who had described Napoleon as the spirit of history on a horse? Stalin, Nora told Lea, was the spirit of history on a tank. Plus he had a great moustache.
Like a Balkan Jojo Rabbit, Ypi was as a result in thrall to an evil dictator, and her memoir is, in part, the story of how she disabused herself, left Albania as it collapsed during the late 1990s into gangsterdom, finally becoming professor of political theory at the London School of Economics. But this is no triumphalist narrative of liberation from state oppression. Nor is this one of those eastern European memoirs dripping with ostalgie for a time before the consumer society. Ypi’s memoir is instead brilliantly observed, politically nuanced and – best of all – funny.
Indeed, when Prof Ypi teaches Marx today at the LSE, she tells her students that socialism is a theory of human freedom. “Freedom,” she writes, “is not only sacrificed when others tell us what to say, where to go, how to behave. A society that claims to enable people to realise their potential but fails to change the structures that prevent everyone from flourishing, is also oppressive.” She is not indicting the Etonian cabal that run British politics by name, but it is surely implied.
What makes the memoir utterly engrossing is not just how little Lea’s politics develop, but how she comes to find out how her parents and beloved granny, Nini, hide things to protect her. When they say a relative has graduated, they mean he has been released from jail. Dropping out means killing yourself. Studying international relations means being jailed for treason.
Moreover, in godless Albania, the family hide their Muslim heritage. When Lea asks her parents about their faith, Babi replies: “We are Muslims.”
“We were Muslims,” counters Mami. One day, she and her parents cycle past a building when Mami points out to Babi a fifth floor window. Only after the end of socialist rule did they dare tell their daughter that the building was expropriated from her mother’s family to become a party headquarters. Only then could her mother tell Lea that from that window in 1947 Lea’s great grandfather had stood there, shouting “Allahu Akbar” before plunging to his death to avoid torture.
Her father, too, had secrets. For years Lea had been brought up by her teachers to despise Xhafer Ypi, former prime minister of Albania and justice minister under the fascist Italian protectorate established after the flight of King Zog. Why, she wondered, did this disgraced figure have the same name as her dad? Later she discovered that he was her great-grandfather and his name had blighted the family, making it impossible for her parents to join the party and so further their careers.
When multi-party elections were allowed in the early 1990s, Lea’s parents became leading figures in Albania’s main opposition party, committed to the idea that Albania should become just like the rest of Europe with free enterprise and freedom from corruption. But by 1997, the gap between their neoliberal dreams and kleptocratic reality widened after pyramid schemes in which the majority of its population had invested their savings collapsed and the country was plunged into civil war.
Meanwhile, at school Lea does her final exam to the sound of Kalashnikovs outside, unaware that someone has called the headmaster to say a bomb will go off in two hours.
While some teachers hunt for the bomb (it turns out to be a hoax), in the exam hall another one gives the students the answers. How delightful to read a book about Albania that doesn’t cite the country’s obsession with Norman Wisdom, but instead has its own jet-black humour. “Nobody is going to fail,” says the teacher. If your predicted grade is six, you must copy two answers. If it’s eight you need to copy three,” adding: “You don’t need to panic. But you do need to be quick.”
It’s a story that, in its laughably hellish bureaucratic absurdity, lies and pointless suffering, typifies the professor’s experiences as a little girl.
While her parents hoped that liberalism would be liberation from the death-in-life of Albanian socialism, Ypi has no such illusions. On the final pages she describes liberalism as “broken promises, the destruction of solidarity, the right to inherit privilege, turning a blind eye to injustice”. Perhaps freedom only exists as an unrealised ideal in human hearts. An essential book, just as much for Britons as Albanians.
• Free: Coming of Age at the End of History by Lea Ypi is published by Allen Lane. To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.