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Lea Ypi: “Free – grow up at the end of the story”

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You wake up. You don’t know who you are or how you got here. The story begins. A story where you have to find out what the world is like, who the people are, who you can trust.

Anyone who has played computer games at the turn of the millennium knows this kind of story. Stories in which danger and tension are created by ignorance, by the fact that everything can be very different from what you think at first. And, that dawns on you when you read Lea Ypi’s book “Free – Growing Up at the End of History”, anyone who had a childhood in the Eastern Bloc in the two decades before the turn of the millennium knows this story too. . For Lea Ypi is hers.

She recounts them in a memoir, the contents of which could be reproduced in detail here (the story of the author’s childhood and youth in communist Albania, glasnost, civil war, “the West”) if a considerable part of the pleasure is not taken away of the reading. , precisely those typical George Orwell tension computer games, would destroy. Suffice it to say: Lea was born in 1979 in Tirana, Albania. Lea loves “Uncle Enver”, the socialist dictator of Albania, and her family loves her too. Above all, you learn one thing about her: that she has a “biography,” a biography that little Lea doesn’t know about. She only knows that she always has to serve as an explanation: “Biography was the universal answer to all kinds of questions, the basis without which any knowledge was just an opinion.”

In a socialist dictatorship, empty coke cans are sometimes worth more than friendships

After her childhood, after the war, Lea Ypi studied literature and philosophy. Today she is a professor of Political Theory at the prestigious British university London School of Economics. You can see all of this in the book, and also in how little you can say about the book: how much room Professor Ypi leaves for the girl Lea’s perspective.

That is a smart decision. It would have been more conventional to extend the biographical facts and then make connections with the theoretical knowledge of the faculty. Instead, it sets the reader free. She does not immediately dictate how things should be interpreted. People act, the girl Lea observes, the reader gradually experiences different perspectives on “Uncle Enver” and socialism, on the West, on freedom and democracy. Perspectives that diverge more and more: father, mother and grandparents belong together, united by their “biography”, but remain separated in their values ​​and ideas, in their hopes and truths.

Read Ypi: "Free - Growing up at the end of the story": Read Ypi: Free - growing at the end of the story.  Suhrkamp, ​​Berlin 2022. 332 pages, €28.

Read Ypi: Free – growing up at the end of the story. Suhrkamp, ​​Berlin 2022. 332 pages, €28.

Of course, the reader is never completely free here either, he always sees only what the author is willing to show. Ypi tells every detail – the regularity of the queues, the significance of Coca-Cola cans in the neighborhood community – from the limited perspective of a child, but this perspective was chosen by an adult. And an adult who always wants to show something with him. For example, how social constructions work: Grocery bags and bricks can replace a person in a queue, but only until the much-desired products arrive, then there are no more rules. Or what cultural imperialism is: in a socialist dictatorship, empty Coke cans are sometimes worth more than friendships.

The promise of freedom and democracy leads to a new lack of freedom, chosen freely and secretly

And perhaps the child knows too much after all, for example when the parents’ reaction to the first (long-awaited) free and secret choice is described as “reluctant”: “the false indecision gave the impression that they had not felt at the height of all these years of concrete facts, but rather of “abstract possibilities”. You don’t trust an eleven-year-old to make such an observation, and whether you perceive this analytic intervention as cheating or intellectual enrichment is ultimately just a matter of perspective.

In any case, Ypi introduces what makes up the second part of the book: disappointment. The promise of freedom and democracy leads to a new lack of freedom, chosen freely and secretly. The end of socialism brings with it capitalism and with it a pyramid scheme, which plunges the Albanian population, inexperienced in capitalism, into an economic crisis and finally into war, and war, it is certain, is worse than socialism .

The lack of freedom to leave the country becomes the lack of freedom to flee to another country: “Before they arrested you for wanting to leave the country. But now that no one was stopping you from leaving the country, we were on the other side of the border and they were no longer welcome. The only thing that had changed was the color of the police uniforms. Now we were no longer being arrested on behalf of our governments, but on behalf of other states whose governments had previously called on us to undertake freedom.”

It’s all very depressing and, most importantly, it’s not free. And if there’s one thing to say against Ypi, this witty author, it’s that she doesn’t seem to notice. That she is writing a book that destroys with each page the possibility of freedom and the hope of an improvement in political systems. A book in which the protagonists make their way from one slavery to the next, from one corrupt system to another equally corrupt system with the greatest fervor. A book that Ypi, however, closes with a hopeful and combative epilogue. It is the only time that the adult Ypi represents her own political position.

Man is free to do what is right, but he is not free to choose what he thinks is right.

And if this gripping, witty, humorous, and complex book can be faulted, it is that it neither justifies nor explains its central concept, “freedom.” Ypi fails to address that there is such a time-honored discourse about “freedom” and “free will,” that it is terribly difficult to justify how biological beings, the result of genes and socialization, are even “free.” In fact, Ypi never seems as naive as a child as she does when she writes as an adult in the epilogue: “And yet, despite all limitations, we never lose our inner freedom: the freedom to do what is right.”

That’s a great conclusion after 300 pages, showing one thing above all else over and over again: People don’t know what’s right, they’re endlessly manipulated into their idea of ​​”right,” they make mistakes over and over again. time, to do exactly that with the best of intentions. Wrong or not, who knows. Man, it seems after reading it, is free to do what is right, but not free to decide what he thinks is right. And it’s only in hindsight that he knows how wrong he is.

In other words: “Frei” is a mediocre book about “freedom” and an excellent book about “truth” – that is: about lies and complexity, about hopes and disappointments, about polyphony and multiple perspectives. , about the propaganda of the East and the empty promises of the West. In times like these, it seems obligatory to point out here that this is the right book for “times like these.” But right now it’s not the right book because it teaches something about the collapse of the Eastern bloc or even war. But because it is a reminder that every person wakes up in a world where they do not know who they are or what the world is, where one tries to do the right thing without being able to rule out that it is the wrong thing. . This is no different at the end of the story than at the beginning.


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