The Madonnas of Leningrad
Debra Dean’s first novel celebrates the miracles of life and beauty as the most powerful incentives for survival. The heroism and patriotism of people, those unknown heroes behind the front lines of World War II, and their love of art and of life itself is portrayed with great power and a refined blend of sensitivity and lyricism.
Like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003), this novel is placed in a world-famous gallery, the Hermitage Museum of Leningrad (originally and currently known as Saint Petersburg). The main character, an eighty-two-year-old Russian immigrant, Marina Buriakov, is afflicted with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Now living in Seattle, she is not much involved with the world around her; she lives in her memories. Even amid the family wedding rehearsal and marriage ceremony of her granddaughter Katie, Marinamost of the timedoes not know who the people around her are. Therefore, not too many characters are identified or well developed in this novel, just as they are not in Marina’s mind. Through the erratic flashes of her memory, readers get to know randomly only those parts of Marina’s life that are firmly imbedded in her memory and that become triggered by something in the present.
Readers see her as a young tour guide at the Hermitage during the nine hundred days of German siege during World War II. With the two thousand other people there, Marina lived without food, electricity, heating, or hot water. The flashback opens in the majestic Spanish Skylight Hall, designed to display the largest canvases, including Diego Velázquez’s “scenes in taverns” series. Marina’s knowledge and identification with such canvases is stronger than her awareness of the harsh conditions around her. She sees three Spanish peasants eating sardines, pomegranates, and bread (in the painting) alongside her fellow Russians (hiding in the basement with her), eating frozen potatoes and the linseed oil stored for wall painting and glue for the frames.
Now in the United States, Marina still feels hunger but does not remember whether she already ate or needs to prepare the meal. Marina’s reality is a two-dimensional world, like a book, existing only on one page at a time. When the page turns, the previous one disappears. She cannot remember her own dress recently bought at Penney’s, but she vividly remembers the colors in Thomas Gainsborough’s Portrait of the Duchess of Beaufort, which she helped take out of the frame and pack, sixty-some years earlier, during the gigantic task of the Hermitage collection evacuation.
She recalls belye nochi (white nights) and the sun barely touching the horizon, blurring the difference between the day and night; the constant droning of the German Junker airplanes; the staff spending days and nights for months endlessly packing and evacuating the collections, crating two and a half million pieces. They sleep only a few hours per night and hardly have any human food. The trucks take the crates, which fill twenty-two cars of a long, armed train going to the state-secret destination of the most valuable paintings only. The endless packing of other items follows: sculpture, jewelry, drawings, coins, and much more for another train.
Through another flash of memory, readers learn that Marina gets a short break from work when her friend Dmitri suddenly has to leave for the front. The two have supper together at a well-known, elegant restaurant. He proposes marriage and gives her a ring. They spend the rest of the night making love on the grass in the park. He hurriedly leaves, not knowing that the war will separate them for years. After that, life is a blur of hardship and starvation for Marina. To keep her sanity, she creates “a memory palace,” in her mind, where she puts, piece by piece, the most exquisite art works in their masterful details, to save and keep them alive. Their empty frames are left on the walls; it is hoped they will come back again in better, peaceful times. The sacred place in Marina’s memory becomes a refuge in days of famine, freezing, bombing, and ever-present death and destruction.
As the story unfolds, Marina’s family members from other cities gather for her granddaughter’s wedding. They notice and discuss Marina’s unusual behavior. Most of the time she covers up her dementia with vague, general remarks, but her daughter realizes there are moments when her mother does...
(The entire section is 1816 words.)