Thursday, July 14, 2011
Debra Dean, THE MADONNAS OF LENINGRAD
This enjoyable debut novel gives us two stories in one: the first is a story about a woman named Marina who worked at the Hermitage to wrap and ship paintings out of the Leningrad museum as the Nazis approached the city. From the title (a reference to the many Madonna paintings in the museum), I expected this to be the main storyline. But I came away feeling (in a good way) that it is not; this novel is about memory and how the pieces of past and present fit together, in much the same way the vehicle and tenor (though those categories can be problematic) fit together in a metaphor. The second story is about Marina, now in her eighties and living in the US, experiencing Alzheimer's. Dean has written the narrative in temporally disjointed "fragments"--bouncing from the events of 1941 to present day and back to the short lectures about artists and paintings that Marina would give as a docent. In 1941, another Hermitage worker, Anya, explains to Marina a memory trick: when she had to memorize the entire Law of God, all the Roman emperors and their reigns, etc. she created a memory palace, where the rug, or door, reminded her of x or y, so she could remember it. Marina begins to create her own memory palace, to remember the palace (Hermitage) and which paintings were in which rooms. (This is why I feel the book plays with notions of memory, metaphor, and literal meanings.) In the end, when Marina goes missing (like a painting), her family searches for her, and we readers (privy to her memories the way her children and her husband are not) understand the logic of what she's done.