A blog written by someone who enjoys reading mystery novels and other books.
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
Dean’s The Madonnas of Leningrad is
surely one of the best books I will read in 2013.
Russian émigré Marina Buriakov struggles with Alzheimer’s. As she attends a
granddaughter’s wedding, her mind transports her back to Leningrad.
was a docent in Leningrad’s Hermitage Museum. She lived there during the Second
World War as the Germans invaded Russia.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
sits in Leningrad and watches people freeze to death as she also sits amidst
the luxury and opulence of her granddaughter’s wedding.
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.)
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.
one point, Marina’s fiancé Dmitri looks again at her small picture hidden in
his pocket. That picture is whatmakes it possible for him to survive
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
Marina finally died peacefully some time later, I breathed a sigh of relief.
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.
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 liveeven in the midst of pain and chaos.
Dean’s The Madonnas of Leningrad is a
moving, yet gentle, book. If you haven’t read it, you might want to.