Family histories in a time of upheaval


Family histories in a time of upheaval

LOUIS GAIGHER read two books that illuminate some of 20th-century Europe's political turbulence.


TO belong or not, and how memory plays into this question, is a theme common to the family memoir. It is of particular relevance in our historic moment of disruption, nationalism and migration.

How you describe your roots and place yourself within a family context and the procession of generations is often the starting point of a reflection on your place in a community, society and time. Family stories tend to inhabit the gaps between recorded history and personal narrative. They are often shapeshifters, such as two recent brilliant and award-winning family memoirs — both written during the Covid-19 lockdown — which combine family history, political science and social history and are rich in lived experience, characterisation, vitality, wit and wisdom.

Lea Ypi, a professor of political theory at the London School of Economics, is a horror-struck 11-year-old in the opening scene of Free: Coming of the Age at the End of History, when she seeks refuge by embracing Stalin’s knees, looks up and realises he's lost his head and that his smiling eyes and moustache (which her teacher says hides his smiling mouth) have disappeared.

It is December 1990 in the Albanian port city of Durrës and “hooligans" who, to Ypi's bewilderment are agitating for freedom and democracy, have beheaded the statue of this “friend of children". A statue of Enver Hoxha, Albania's founding father and longstanding dictator, and likewise object of Ypi's love and esteem, remained standing for another two months in Tirana, the capital.

Albania was a torch-bearer for anti-imperialist struggles and the future would find Albanians on the right side of history, or so it was claimed. It was also an authoritarian police state, but not for young Lea. Her family story had been withheld, and in her presence news of oppression and resistance was shared in an elaborate code. It was not surprising that in Stalinism's last unadulterated fortress, which severed ties with the Soviet Union because of Khrushchev's destalinisation programme and with China due to its market liberalisation, the Wende slouched into the room in a year after the execution of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

After Stalin had lost his head, Ypi — a kind of Candide — learnt over the span of a few weeks that Albanian democracy was meaningless and that basic freedoms — movement, expression, association, conscience, and so on — were non-existent. Furthermore, the hidden history of her family had marked her. The party, the state and their institutions would have deprived her of the freedom to flourish, despite her abilities, intelligence and the sincerity and zeal with which she attended to her Pioneers of Enver activities and the Albanian national project.

Ypi's parents, of varied origin, were deemed suspicious and persecuted from birth, she learnt. Her mother, Vjolica, descended from capitalist property owners who had been left to perish after their properties were confiscated. Xhaferr, her father, was from intellectual, left-leaning stock and the grandson of the Albanian prime minister who, according to the history books, deserved all the blame for Albania surrendering to Italy during the war. Her paternal grandfather’s absence of 15 years was due to political incarceration and not because of prolonged university studies, as was relayed in Ypi code.

Ypi's grandmother, Nini, the central figure in the family and the book's moral heart, tells her life story calmly and point by point. Descended from a line of Ottoman rulers, she was born in Salonika (now the Greek Thessaloniki) and received her elite schooling in French. At 20 she was an adviser to the Albanian prime minister. She met Lea's grandfather at an Albanian royal wedding and their “shared antipathy to royal weddings was surpassed only by the contempt in which they held the monarchy".

Later, after a change of government, she was persecuted, lost everything and was sent to a labour camp. Her friends and allies fell apart but by consciously accepting her fate, while fully aware of her reality, she retained authorship of her life and claimed the freedom of moral agency. Freedom, for her, “is being conscious of necessity". Her quiet defiance took the form of using French in their home, to the great annoyance of her granddaughter who was desperate to fit in.

With the advent of capitalist freedom, Ypi's parents fly headlong into opposition politics, even though they hold conflicting world views. As a sworn libertarian, battleaxe Vjolica opposes state interference and regulation as well as redress, except for being hellbent on reclaiming the family’s forfeited property. She trusts the market to bring freedom and judge value.

Nervously disposed Xhaferr becomes the CEO of the port of Durrës and is coerced into retrenching workers because of forced structural reforms, actions and outcomes in conflict with his view that freedom must empower people to reach their potential. He realises that democracy and capitalism are irreconcilable because profit takes precedence over deliberation. Nini, on the other hand, nurtures and force-feeds Ypi. Taking up Western freedoms makes her prone to Western fears, such as anorexia in her granddaughter, even though its cause and possible contagiousness are veiled in mystery.

As an adolescent, Ypi's attention is divided between ordinary teenage things, structural reform, emigration and a refugee crisis (which turns her friend into a victim of human trafficking). In 1997, during her last school exams, she becomes preoccupied with street militias, gang thuggery and an economic and systemic collapse caused by unregulated Ponzi schemes. Diary entries from the time capture the texture of her teenage life as her family and society unravel and hopelessness ensues.

Ypi shows that the West tends to boast about freedom of movement when soldiers prevent their own citizens from emigrating, but gives refugees and immigrants a hostile reception. At the end of Free, and after she’s finished school, Ypi sets off across the Adriatic to Italy, visible from Durrës, “on a boat that sailed over thousands of drowned bodies, bodies that once carried souls more hopeful than mine, but who met fates less fortunate".

Italian-British emigration spans generations in Thea Lenarduzzi’s richly drawn Dandelions. Lenarduzzi, an editor at The Times Literary Supplement, lets her grandmother Dirce, a former seamstress, tells her life story that involved migrations between Fruili in northern Italy and Manchester in the north of England.

“Mom no, nina," Dirce, using a diminutive of a diminutive, sighs over and over when her granddaughter misunderstands her story. Lenarduzzi's attempt to comprehend takes the form of a sensitively drawn and discursive portrait of food (including metaphorical and edible dandelions), expressions, social customs, films and books, and larger political movements such as fascism and nationalism which steered and filled Dirce's life.

Natalia Ginzburg's classic Lessico famigliare (1963), which has had a tremendous revival recently in the English-speaking world as Family Sayings, infuses this text and is quoted at the outset. Ginzburg writes that family stories and expressions instantly revive old relationships between her and her relatives and make them recognisable to each other.

Ginzburg does not write explicitly about herself in Family Sayings but is present throughout. Half-British, half-Italian Lenarduzzi, likewise, is a quiet yet powerful presence in her grandmother's story, and Dandelions is also an attempt to make sense of her own roots and belonging in the time of Brexit and Fratelli d'Italia.

Lea Ypi returns to Durrës in this captivating documentary.

♦ VWB ♦

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