The paradoxical strength and fragility of memory lend structure to the dual timeframes in Debra Dean’s 2006 debut novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad
. The story’s present timeframe unfolds in Washington state and centers on eighty-two-year-old Marina Buriakov, who suffers from the disorienting effects of Alzheimer’s disease. Marina’s past, when she was a young woman struggling to survive the WWII siege of Leningrad, constitutes the novel’s alternative timeframe. As her grip on the present becomes increasingly tenuous, Marina retreats into the “memory palace” she mentally constructed during the siege to distract herself from the wartime atrocities. The novel’s narrative flights between Marina’s past and present mimic the unmooring of time in her mind but also reflect how memory and beauty interrelate.
The story opens in Marina’s Seattle kitchen. The octogenarian stands lost in visions of her past when Dimitri, her husband of sixty years, interrupts her reveries to urge her to dress for the wedding. Perplexed, Marina asks who’s getting married, and Dimitri reminds her it’s their granddaughter’s wedding day. Although she recalls her granddaughter, Marina can’t remember Cooper, the groom. Dmitri notes that Marina was wearing her blue dress the evening they met Cooper, hoping this detail will trigger her memory. It does call forth a past image, but it’s of Gainsborough’s “Lady in Blue.” Marina “packed that very painting” for safe-keeping when she was a docent at Leningrad’s Hermitage just before the Germans invaded in 1941.
As the wedding day progresses, Marina, whose short-term memory is eroding, struggles to keep her bearings in the present. With increasing frequency, her mind’s eye wanders off to scenes from the nine-hundred-day German siege of Leningrad, during which she and two thousand others took shelter in the Hermitage, the city’s enormous art museum. Scenes from the wedding, such as a bowl of peaches, repeatedly merge with details from paintings in the Hermitage collection, forming a bridge that leads her into the past.
In Leningrad during the early 1930s, when Marina was eleven, her parents were imprisoned as political dissidents. She then lived with her aunt and uncle and met eleven-year-old Dimitri, who had also lost his parents. Ten years later, Marina and Dmitri decide to marry just before he departs to join the Russian army. They spend an amorous night together, and then Dmitri leaves for the battlefront.
Marina, an art enthusiast, has worked as a docent at the Hermitage for two years. With the German army advancing toward Leningrad, and the looming threat of looting and bombing, the museum’s director arranges for the evacuation of the enormous collection. Marina and the other docents work day and night packaging paintings for transport out of the city. They leave the frames on the walls, however, as a pledge that the paintings will one day return.
The Germans surround Leningrad just as the brutal Russian winter begins. Bunkering in the basement of the Hermitage, Marina, with her aunt and uncle and hundreds of other families, is safe from the German firebombs. However, without electricity, they cannot escape the biting cold or the gnawing hunger which consumes them after the food warehouses are bombed. The Hermitage dwellers are forced to reduce their meals to three small pieces of bread each day, a starvation diet that results in numerous deaths and drives many to eat glue and pine needles. As their “world gets smaller and colder […], Marina notices, people are becoming fixated.”
Marina fixates on the missing paintings. To escape the misery around her, she tours the galleries, re-enacting her docent duties, describing “by rote the pictures that [had] hung inside” the empty frames. This becomes a daily ritual when Anya, an older museum attendant, counsels Marina to archive the absent artwork in a “memory palace.” Henceforth, the two women “add a few more rooms each day, mentally restocking the hermitage, painting by painting.”
So preoccupied is Marina with the paintings that they start to permeate her perception of events. When she sees her aunt cradling her uncle after he dies in his sleep, she is reminded of Veronese’s “Pieta.” Then, one night while taking her turn as a fire lookout on the museum roof, Marina fancies that a nearby “naked god” statue comes to life and ravishes her. Her surreal experience is perhaps explained as a cross between her extreme mental duress and her memory of Rembrandt’s “Danae,” who was impregnated by Zeus.
Marina discovers she’s pregnant, which she credits to her night with Dimitri, (although the octogenarian Marina believes Zeus fathered her son). As an expectant mother, she’s particularly interested in furnishing her “memory palace” with the Madonna masterpieces of the Hermitage. Anya often pauses to pray before the frames that once held Madonna paintings, and although Marina professes she’s “not a believer,” she eventually, furtively, does the same. Her pregnancy becomes a symbol of hope for those around her. Miraculously, despite Marina’s malnourishment, her son Andrei is born robust and content.
Marina and Dimitri reunite after the war and move to Seattle. Sixty years later, Dimitri watches with despair as Marina’s memory evacuates her, like a painting from its frame. Their daughter, Helen, arrives from Phoenix for the wedding, and only with effort does Marina remember her.
After the wedding, Marina disappears. As police search for her, Marina’s mind returns to the Hermitage, where, heavily pregnant with Andrei, she guides a group of young soldiers through the vacant galleries. Her descriptions of the departed artworks are so vivid that the men truly behold their beauty. In the present, Marina has been missing for over a day when a builder finds her huddled inside a house under construction. Underdressed and almost frozen, she nevertheless exhorts the builder to behold the beauty around them. “‘She was pointing at everything,’ he tells the police. ‘You had to be there. She was showing me the world.’”The Madonnas of Leningrad
includes many details about the 1941 siege that are historically accurate, including that of the frames left on the walls of the Hermitage. In the novel, the empty frames symbolize a timeless space, analogous to Marina’s fading memory, where beauty is always startlingly new. Indeed, during her post-wedding wanderings, Marina is captivated by the beauty of a leaf, “the first new green of the world […]. Time recedes […]. She is beyond the tyranny of time.”