Behind a scarred metal door, painted red and inset with two locks that opened to keys in shapes I never saw in the States, including one that looked like the Philips head screwdriver on my old swiss army knife, my Lviv apartment was laid out like gilded railroad cars: hardwood floors shined the whole length of the apartment, from the cubby for shoes off the stairwell to a window that looked from the bedroom onto the street outside. There were inset glass-fronted cabinets in the same wood the length of one wall that displayed crystal bowls, glasses, and knickknacks that caught the light and mirrored it over couches and tables. It had a glassy-eyed kind of Mittel-European glamour that you’d never guess at from the surroundings, with only a small window over the single chambered sink. Standing there, you looked over the central courtyard where a blasted tree struggled for life, the backdrop for petty crimes of drug dealing, prostitution, or maybe sexual assault. When you were inside, you were functionally apart from the cold winter, the poverty and half-planned genocide of the old, the language I stubbornly failed to learn however much I was around it.
It was exactly the kind of place where when something happened, it would come with such surprise there was no predicting it, like the murder in Edgar Allen Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” where two middle-aged women, spinsters, were killed when an orangutan, loose from the zoo he traveled with, swung through the window and shoved one up her own chimney before tearing the skull from the other and carrying her body through the courtyard window and away. I stood at that sink, not looking out the window, and tried for ten months to figure out how to do anything more challenging with it than filling a pot with water when I couldn’t even get a plug to stop the drain. Focus on the local, the internal, the safe, and even then, mysteries remain: how did my landlord, Petro, an otherwise seemingly modest guy, end up with an apartment that looked like a spare bedroom in the Tuileries? As outcomes go, it was as unlikely as the solution to Poe’s murder mystery.
Most of the time I spent in that apartment, I occupied myself with reading, or else writing, in a frantic twelve week period, the novel I had come there to write and which, by the time I finished, showed no discernible impact of living in a foreign country. But sometimes I let myself out; I had friends in the Peace Corps who lived and taught in small towns north of Lviv. Sometimes I visited them there, in Chervonograd and Sosnivka. We’d go to discos and plan big communal dinners, walk through the parks and give lessons to students who were hungry for us to validate their love for Western pop culture. Once, we even toured a working coal mine in Sosnivka, six of us, carrying a barely portable video camera and lighting rig that was, in 2002, state of the art, three-quarters of a mile below ground in an elevator that then carried to the surface workers finishing up a shift who wondered, rightly, what the hell would draw anyone down into the mines for recreation.
Valentin, the union chief for the site and our tour guide, explained the mine and the town it nestled against were in a bind. The seam of coal they’d been harvesting was picked clean. They could extend the shafts, but to do so would bring them under populated parts of Sosnivka, opening pockets of air under apartment blocks, markets, the internet café and post office. Soon, everyone understood, those buildings would disappear into sink holes. But without the jobs attached to the mine, there was no reason to live in Sosnivka all at; the townspeople would abandon the town. It was a challenge to resolve, Valentin explained, and after many meetings to discuss it, the people of Sosnivka had only managed to schedule more meetings.
That experience struck me, obviously, so I froze when I read Tadeusz Borowski’s concentration camp narrative, “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.” In the story, Borowski’s narrator and his cynical friend Henri are on train duty, unloading and sorting the personal possessions of those newly brought to Auschwitz and who are headed for the gas sooner or later.
The story is as chilling as you’d expect, but what really stopped me in my reading was where the train originated, Sosnowiec-Bedzin. Western Ukraine, where my friends and I lived in 2001 and 2002, had been traded back and forth, between Poland and Ukraine and Russia a half-dozen times in the last hundred years alone. Naming conventions, like the three languages spoken, were close but not quite the same: when old babushkas heard me trying to speak Ukrainian they just assumed I was speaking fluent Polish. Sosnowiec, I was sure, was the Polish, the WWII-era, name for Sosnivka. And Valentin and the residents of Sosnivka had probably swept into town after all the Jews had been loaded onto the strains. Society abhors a vacuum even more than nature, and a town, stripped of people in a genocidal frenzy, was still filled with buildings and a still-rich coal mine, far from played out.
If you’re willing to do the research, you’ll find it’s the same story through most of Western Ukraine: In Lviv, for example, before WWII, somewhere between a quarter and a third of the city’s residents were Jews. Reports in 1941 counted a hundred thousand Jews packed into the Lwow ghetto. These Jews were sent en masse to Auschwitz and Belzec, another Polish death camp. Before that, they’d been displaced from their homes and offices, factories and temples in the city center. After the war, it’s estimated that between 200 and 800 Jews remained in the city. Who lived in the apartments, worked in the offices and factories formerly filled by ninety-nine thousand Jews displaced by history? Historians call it “population transfers,” Stalin called it rotation of populations: Ukrainian peasants from the countryside and political undesirables—Russians who opposed his rule, for example, or those related to those he suspected did, rushed in to fill those empty apartments and offices.
And what of those missing people? They were even more lost to history than Marie Roget, the woman in another of Poe’s detective stories, who goes missing and then resurfaces floating in the Seine. Dupin and his amanuensis (we assume it’s Poe) don’t even leave the house to solve the mystery of her murder, because they learn all they need to from newspaper accounts. But Roget is, like Dupin, and Borowski’s friend Henri, a literary invention, disappeared for entertainment. Poe is writing about a real English woman, Mary Rogers, who floated, dead, in the Hudson River. Poe gave her a new name—barely—and translated her from Hoboken to Paris. His story, published when the English-speaking world didn’t know what happened to Mary Rogers, laid out correctly, to the best of our knowledge today, what brought her to the river.
But what about the residents of Lviv, about Petro my landlord and Valentin the mine shop union organizer? Poe wrote another story starring his detective Dupin, called “The Purloined Letter.” In it, Dupin is asked by G, Prefect of the Paris police, to recover an embarrassing letter stolen by D, a government minister, from the royal apartments. It’s feared that D is using or will use the letter to blackmail its intended recipient, but every attempt to search D’s apartment and his person hasn’t been able to turn up the purloined letter. Dupin has to leave the house twice to effect his solution to this mystery: on the first visit to D’s apartment, he located the letter, hidden in plain sight and addressed as if it were another, less significant missive. On his second visit, Dupin replaces the letter with his own facsimile whose only message is a taunt to D, that he has stepped beyond the boundary of his influence.
French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan shares his mentor Sigmund Freud’s habit of using literature to explain the unconscious. He sees Poe’s “Purloined Letter” as a metaphor for how meaning accrues in the unconscious, and this in spite of opening with the provocative claim that the contents of the letter are irrelevant. Whatever particular message the letter contains is irrelevant, Lacan suggests; the letter is important because we have invested it with meaning. It is the stopper that holds meaning in place, that prevents it from running around or running out. When Dupin replaces the letter with his own forgery, he lets all meaning, even that in the original letter, escape.
And what are buildings, after all, but envelopes that contain people. They bear addresses, after all, and each is capable of multiple messages. I lived in an apartment that might once have been lived in by some Jewish petit bourgeois. Before me, it was lived in by Petro, who was living someplace else for a year and collecting the rent I paid to pay for his daughter’s wedding. And me? Each month an electric bill came to the rusted metal cubby that was my mailbox, a summons for me to walk down the hill to the opulent, marble floored electric company lobby, where cashiers waited behind gold-framed windows. Each month, the amount of my bill was suspiciously high, like I was being charged for the electricity everyone in my building used. And each month, I bit my tongue and paid it.