November 1, 2008
The Madonnas of Leningrad
The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean
2006 William Morrow
Finished on 10/21/08
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)
One of the most talked about books of the year . . . Bit by bit, the ravages of age are eroding Marina's grip on the everyday. And while the elderly Russian woman cannot hold on to fresh memories—the details of her grown children's lives, the approaching wedding of her grandchild—her distant past is preserved: vivid images that rise unbidden of her youth in war-torn Leningrad.
In the fall of 1941, the German army approached the outskirts of Leningrad, signaling the beginning of what would become a long and torturous siege. During the ensuing months, the city's inhabitants would brave starvation and the bitter cold, all while fending off the constant German onslaught. Marina, then a tour guide at the Hermitage Museum, along with other staff members, was instructed to take down the museum's priceless masterpieces for safekeeping, yet leave the frames hanging empty on the walls—a symbol of the artworks' eventual return. To hold on to sanity when the Luftwaffe's bombs began to fall, she burned to memory, brushstroke by brushstroke, these exquisite artworks: the nude figures of women, the angels, the serene Madonnas that had so shortly before gazed down upon her. She used them to furnish a "memory palace," a personal Hermitage in her mind to which she retreated to escape terror, hunger, and encroaching death. A refuge that would stay buried deep within her, until she needed it once more. . . .
Seamlessly moving back and forth in time between the Soviet Union and contemporary America, The Madonnas of Leningrad is a searing portrait of war and remembrance, of the power of love, memory, and art to offer beauty, grace, and hope in the face of overwhelming despair. Gripping, touching, and heartbreaking, it marks the debut of Debra Dean, a bold new voice in American fiction.
This is one of those popular books from a couple of years ago (Water for Elephants and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan are two others) that I held off reading until I felt the hype had settled down and I was ready to give it a try. I'm happy to report that I wasn't the least bit disappointed and thoroughly enjoyed Dean's remarkable debut novel! I was immediately drawn into the narrative, eager to return to my reading at the end of the day. I enjoyed both aspects of the story, but was more interested in Marina's present life rather than her time in Leningrad at the Hermitage Museum. This surprises me, since not only do I love reading about World War II, but I enjoy books that focus on art history. As I was reading the sections about the specific works of art, I found myself wishing I could double-click on the title of the painting in order to see what was described. I could've have stopped and searched the Internet for an image of the painting, but I didn't want to interrupt the flow of the story.
I only marked a few passages, but I think they're quite poignant:
In the Hermitage, they are packing up the picture gallery. It is past midnight but still light enough to see without electricity. It is the end of June 1941, and this far north, the sun barely skims beneath the horizon. Belye nochi, they are called, the white nights. She is numb with exhaustion and her eyes itch from the sawdust and cotton wadding. Her clothes are stale, and it has been days since she has slept. There is too much to be done. Every eighteen or twenty hours, she slips away to one of the army cots in the next room and falls briefly into a dreamless sate. One can't really call it sleep. It is more like disappearing for a few moments at a time. Like a switch being turned off. After an hour or so, the switch mysteriously flips again, and like an automaton she rises from her cot and returns to work.
...She is always disoriented now. The Hermitage staff has been packing almost round the clock for weeks and weeks now, eating sandwiches brought into the galleries, slipping away only to use the toilet. In the first week, they crated more than half a million pieces of art and artifacts. And then on the last night of June, an endless parade of trucks carried away the crates. A train, twenty-two cars long and armed with machine guns, waited at the goods depot to spirit the priceless art away, its destination a state secret. Walking back through the rooms, through wastelands of shredded paper, Marina had averted her eyes. Many of the older people wept.
"Why didn't you tell me about this? About Mama?" Helen tries not to sound reproachful.
Dmitri stares out the front window, blinking and working his lips. They pass a bookstore, a small brick post office, a market. She scans the empty sidewalks and then glances back at her father. A tear is dribbling down his cheek.
"I'm sorry, Papa. I'm not criticizing."
"We've always cared for each other." His voice is thick.
"What does Dr. Rich say? Have you at least talked with her about it?"
"They did some tests. But there's not so much to be done."
Helen steels herself. "Is it Alzheimer's?"
He is blinking furiously now and biting down hard on his lower lip.
Helen pulls the car over to the side of the street and turns off the engine. Silence fills the interior of the car. She takes her father's freckled hand in her own and squeezes it gently. The air seems to go out of him; tears gather in the folds beneath his eyes and spill down his cheeks.
"I don't know what to do," he admits. "She's getting worse. She can't wash herself anymore. She only stands under the water and forgets to soap herself. I'm afraid to leave her alone, even for a few minutes. Last week, she put some plums in the dryer when I wasn't looking. Our underwear came out with pink splotches, and I found pits in the bottom of the barrel."
In discussing the book with my husband, I finally realized why I was more interested in Marina's later life story, rather than the period during the war. My parents are in their mid-70s and while they are very active and spry, with absolutely no signs of Alzheimer's or dementia, it is a worry that my brothers and I may have to face the possibility of dealing with this sometime in the not so distant future. I have a few friends who are already losing their parents to Alzheimer's and it's so terribly heartbreaking. I also know that it's entirely possible that I could wake up one morning and not have my husband recognize me. Or me him. I don't know which would be worse.
Does one cease to exist as a wife or a daughter if one's husband or parent doesn't recognize them? Is it not so much the person succumbing to the disease that becomes the ghost, but rather the one left behind?
I'm anxious to read more by Debra Dean (hopefully, a bit more cheery!). She's published a collection of short stories (Confessions of a Falling Woman: And Other Stories), but I've never been much for those, so I'll wait until she writes another full-length novel.
For more information about the Hermitage during the siege, go here. And to read about Debra Dean's visit to the Hermitage, go here.