Friday, April 19, 2013

not a mystery--THE MADONNAS OF LENINGRAD by Debra Dean

 No one weeps anymore, or if they do, it is over small things, inconsequential moments that catch them unprepared. What is left that is heartbreaking? Not death: death is ordinary. What is heartbreaking is the sight of a single gull lifting effortlessly from a street lamp. Its wings unfurl like silk scarves against the mauve sky, and Marina hears the rustle of its feathers. What is heartbreaking is that there is still beauty in the world.


Debra Dean’s The Madonnas of Leningrad is surely one of the best books I will read in 2013.

Elderly Russian émigré Marina Buriakov struggles with Alzheimer’s. As she attends a granddaughter’s wedding, her mind transports her back to Leningrad.

Marina was a docent in Leningrad’s Hermitage Museum. She lived there during the Second World War as the Germans invaded Russia.

She helped pack the priceless art to send away. She lived in cramped quarters. She tried to memorize the pictures, to remember where they hung in the museum.

Marina starved with all the Russian people. She “buried” friends and relatives who had literally frozen to death during the unspeakable winter that finally stopped the German army’s advance.

Marina and her friends placed bodies in simple homemade wooden coffins, or, after wood ran out, wrapped them in shrouds and stacked them in the museum’s basement. She mourned for her fiancée who was away at the front, surely captured or dead.

Marina becomes pregnant. Someone rapes her while she stands watch alone on the roof of the Hermitage. But her later perception is confused. She sees the naked statue of a god coming to impregnate her.

The madonnas of Leningrad were both the docents who cared for the art, and a portion of the art itself, priceless madonnas hanging on the museum’s gilded walls.

In her demented state, Marina describes the paintings, sculptures, and other priceless art. She uses such exquisite detail that even a non-visual person like me can see them.

Marina sits in Leningrad and watches people freeze to death as she also sits amidst the luxury and opulence of her granddaughter’s wedding.

There is food beyond belief at Marina’s granddaughter’s wedding. (Marina’s children never understood why she insisted that they eat every bit of the food on their plates, that the family use every bit of food in the house. They never knew that she had eaten bread made of sawdust because she had been starving.)

This book gives powerful insights into the mind with Alzheimer’s. It also gives insights into what it might be like to live in fear or in captivity.

At one point, Marina’s fiancé Dmitri looks again at her small picture hidden in his pocket. That picture is what makes it possible for him to survive German captivity.

“He kept the photograph in his breast pocket and, while working, he would dredge up and replay every conversation with her that he could remember. Later, he invented new ones, talking with her under his breath.”

As I read those words, I couldn’t help but remember a passage from Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. 

After describing a similar experience in the midst of his own horror in a German concentration camp, Frankl wrote, “For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love."

I picked up Frankl’s book from my father’s bookshelf when I was maybe a freshman in college. I thought (and still think) Man’s Search for Meaning to be the greatest book I’ve ever read. My father’s copy (a small paperback) is so marked and reread now that it is falling apart. I have given it to my son.

Debra Dean’s The Madonnas of Leningrad contains the same kind of great wisdom. When, in the midst of her dementia, Marina wanders off soon after the wedding, we watch the family and authorities try to find her.

She is gone an interminable number of hours. When they find her, she is sleeping in the unused fireplace of an empty tourist house. Surely, that circumstance seemed appropriate to her. After all, she was back living with death and starvation at the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad.

When Marina finally died peacefully some time later, I breathed a sigh of relief.

I read this book during the time when two young men were setting bombs in Boston. At the same time, I watched an incompetent  Senate vote down a sensible gun control bill favored by huge majorities of the American people. Then I watched a tragedy in Texas. That small Texas town was much like the Missouri towns in which I ministered.

All those things made me resolve—I will respond to those tragedies by cheering on those who persevere, by remembering that love is the salvation of all humans. It is through love and in love, by trying to put something positive in the world, that we can continue to live even in the midst of pain and chaos.

Debra Dean’s The Madonnas of Leningrad is a moving, yet gentle, book. If you haven’t read it, you might want to.


Debra Dean said...

Many thanks for this thoughtful review, Joe.

Joe Barone said...

You are welcome. I loved the book.