In 1918, shortly after the Russian Revolution, my great-grandfather, Anatoly, moved his family to St. Petersburg to support the Bolsheviks. Six months later the Bolsheviks arrested him. Anatoly’s wife, Evgenia, figured his arrest was a mistake of incompetent officials. She marched to the offices of the secret police to demand the return of her husband. She never came back. My father told me the family presumed she was either beaten to death or shot in the back of her head. The new regime was cleaning house. Anatoly was swept up because he was an officer in the Tsar’s army before the Revolution, his wife because she was delusional and asked for justice. The couple’s son, my grandfather Vsevolod, was six years old. He waited for days alone in the empty apartment. It was the middle of winter and the heat didn’t work. He built a fortress out of rugs in his living room to keep warm.
My family history is laced with disappearances, a photo album with blank pages: here’s Evgenia’s wedding picture, there she is with her young son smiling in front of the Winter Palace, then nothing, not even a gravestone. I relate to works with missing pieces, and when I read Georges Perec’s “W, or the Memory of Childhoold,” I immediately connected to the book. Perec, born in 1936, lost both of his parents by the time he was six. “W” is his semi-biographical work, an attempt to reconstruct his early years.
Perec was a member of the Oulipo, a group of French writers and mathematicians creating works using constrained writing techniques. One of his earlier novels, “A Void,” is written in its entirety without using the letter “e.” In “W,” however, Perec has no need to create constraints; he is naturally limited by his memory, incomplete and often absent. Perec has minimal information about his parents. His father enlisted in the French army and died early in WWII and his mother was taken to a concentration camp. She was able to evacuate Georges on a Red Cross train out of Paris to a safe zone shortly before she was taken. Perec writes about the day his mother took him to the train station. What he remembers most is the issue of children’s magazine called Charlie she bought him before he boarded the train.
My grandfather died when I was a toddler. I cannot ask him what he remembers about the day his parents disappeared. I imagine he listened to the noises in a hallway, anticipated hearing a key turn in the door, worried about his father or mother berating him for the mess in the living room. Does a six-year-old stop believing his parents are coming back? According to my father, after a few days without food, my grandfather left his apartment. He found a band of homeless children on the street, plentiful back then due parents frequently vanishing, and lived with them until he was caught and placed in a state orphanage.
Perec lived with his paternal aunt after his parents were gone. He describes attending various Catholic schools to hide his Jewish heritage. All Perec has left of his parents are a few old photographs, his own disjointed recollections and tales told by his relatives. So he writes a memoir about a lack of memory, about a childhood where the absence of his parents is a principal rule, a physical law of his world, as undisputed as gravity. As an adult, Perec revisits places he knew as a child, but houses shift shapes and streets change names. “I posses other pieces of information about my parents; I know they will not help me to say what I would like to say about them,” he writes. And he replaces absent facts with fabricated ones.
In parallel, Perec tells a story of an imaginary island W, a totalitarian society with the culture of Olympic sports taken to an extreme. When Perec was twelve, he invented W and documented its cutthroat competitions and absurd laws in painstaking detail. Losers are tortured or executed; winners are briefly rewarded. Victory and defeat are equally dehumanizing. As the book progresses, the personal narrative and the story of W merge. W’s Athletes are prisoners in a concentration camp. No trace of Perec’s mother or her sister has ever been found. “It may be that they were deported toward Auschwitz and then diverted to another camp; it is also possible that their entire trainload was gassed on arrival,” Perec writes. On W, crowds of apathetic spectators watch the Athletes being destroyed. When millions disappeared, they created a giant gap and turned memory into a chessboard, defined by its blank squares as much as by its shaded ones.
But the main reason I was drawn to “W, or the Memory of Childhood” is simple. I couldn’t rid myself of a picture of a six-year-old boy alone in an empty apartment, or leafing through a children’s magazine on a speeding train, unaware that absence will become his core. I’ve been told that my grandfather subconsciously resented his parents for abandoning him, unable to shake off the mindset of a six-year-old that parents control their fates. Georges Perec wrote about an imaginary island to describe the holes left by memories he didn’t have. Years later, I can’t help but wonder what would my family album look like had the blank pages been filled.
Marina Petrova lives and writes in New York City. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, underwaternewyork.com, The Destroyer, and Calliope 19thAnthology. She is an MFA candidate at The New School.