Excerpt from Free by Lea Ypi, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Child and a Country at the End of History

by Lea Ypi

Free by Lea Ypi X
Free by Lea Ypi
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    Jan 2022, 256 pages

    Jan 2022, 304 pages


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I still associate all our efforts to learn from the outside world with Dajti, the name of the isolated mountain range that surrounded our capital and dominated its landscape as if it had captured it and was holding it hostage. Dajti was physically remote but always with us. I never visited it. I still don't know what "receiving from Dajti" meant—who received what, from whom, or how. I suspect there was a satellite or TV receiver up there. Dajti was in every house, in every conversation, in everyone's thoughts. "I saw it last night through Dajti" meant: "I was alive" or "I broke a law" or "I was thinking." For five minutes. For an hour. For a whole day. For however long Dajti would be there.

When my father became frustrated with the programmes on Albanian television he would declare, "I am going to see if we can get Dajti." He would then climb up onto the roof, twist our antenna this way and that, and shout through the window, "How is it now, is it better?" To which I would answer, "Same as before." A couple of minutes later, he would shout again: "What about now?" And I would shout back, "Gone! It's completely gone! It was better before." Then I would hear him swear, followed by metallic sounds that suggested he was still fiddling with the antenna. The more impatient he became, the less likely the signal was to return.

In the summer the situation improved, at least in theory. With good weather, we had two options: Dajti and Direkti. Direkti, the direct signal, could be picked up from Italy, thanks to our proximity to the Adriatic. In my mind, Dajti was the god of the mountains and Direkti was the god of the sea. But Direkti was much more whimsical than Dajti. With Dajti, once you got the antenna right, you knew that the signal would be lost only at the time of the telegiornale, the Italian news programme. Direkti was deceptive. When things worked out, even the telegiornale was accessible, from beginning to end. On other days, Direkti went from being "a looking-glass," as my father called it to indicate his satisfaction with the visibility, to absolutely nothing, a grey screen occupied by shaking spiderwebs.

This meant that when there were important football matches on television, such as Juventus playing at the end of the Serie A season, my father had to face a dilemma: either go with Dajti and expect the signal to be reliable but not ideal or take his chances with the fickle "looking-glass" of Direkti. He often fell for the latter, but having to own the consequences of a potentially misleading decision made him extremely anxious. On such days, he climbed the roof with sadness, like someone about to confront an adversary whose superiority was known. "I'm going up to look at the antenna," he would say, with resignation in his voice and occasionally a touch of despair. On the relation between my father and the antenna—the psychological dramas, the dynamic of attraction and repulsion they fostered, the subtle balance between triumph and defeat—depended every vital piece of information from abroad that my family received, from the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II to rumours of a break-up between Al Bano and Romina Power after the latest Sanremo festival.

Without Dajti and Direkti, there was little to watch on television. On weekdays, the six p.m. story time and the animated film that followed were both a struggle. They coincided with Yugoslav basketball, and the only form of compromise with my father was to switch channels every five minutes. There was more on Sundays: puppet theatre at ten a.m., with a children's film immediately after, then Maya the Bee on Macedonian TV. Then you just had to accept whatever luck brought: a programme of folk songs and dances from different regions of the country, a report about cooperatives that had exceeded the five-year-plan target, a swimming tournament, the weather forecast.

Excerpted from Free by Lea Ypi. Copyright © 2022 by Lea Ypi. Excerpted by permission of W.W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Beyond the Book:
  Albania, Then and Now

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