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Courier Article by Andrea Wannemuehler
Sunday, July 8, 2012

Exploring the Boundaries of Memory and a Relentless War

If you have a penchant for art or history, I recommend you pick up a copy of "The Madonnas of Leningrad." In this short but engrossing novel, Debra Dean weaves together the past and present stories of Russian immigrant Marina Buriakev. As a young woman, Marina worked as a docent in the State Hermitage Museum in Leningrad, leading visitors through the grand halls of one of the largest and oldest museums in the world. Today, Marina is living in Washington and fighting a losing battle with Alzheimer's.

The story opens a few days before her granddaughter Katie's wedding. Despite her husband Dmitiri's constant and gentle reminders of the present, Marina is unable to maintain her grip on reality from moment to moment; she forgets whether she has eaten, the contents of familiar places like cabinets, drawers and closets, and the once familiar faces of her children. Though she is unable to create new memories and many of her past fade to gray, the memories of her time at the Hermitage grow poignant and consuming.

It was in the Hermitage that Marina lived through the siege of Leningrad in the fall and winter of 1941. With the promise of a German invasion looming, Marina and the staff of the Hermitage dismantled the entire museum, taking down every item in the 120-room palace, then painstakingly packed and moved the collection to safer ground, outside of the city and within the confines of the museum. Frames are left hanging on the walls, windows are boarded and the museum becomes a ghost of what it was.

As the German bombs begin to fall and the city is ravaged, the staff of the Hermitage seek refuge in its basements, creating an underground barracks for hundreds of inhabitants. Marina, alongside her Uncle Viktor and Aunt Nadezhda, settles in a small corner of their makeshift home with a chair and a few cots. As fall turns into a freezing winter and the German air raids increase, Leningrad's food supply becomes more scarce. Rations become even more meager, and people begin to starve. Finding purpose and meaning in this depression, Marina begins to walk the rooms of the museum, gallery by gallery, painting by painting, until she can pause at every frame and recall with exactness its contents. It is by creating this refuge in her mind that Marina is able to survive the siege of Leningrad.

These are the memories that swell in Marina's head as she becomes more tightly wound in the grasp of Alzheimer's. When once again the current world seems so unfamiliar, it is to this place she retreats, creating a filter from the unknown in which she sees beauty.

Originally published in 2006, "The Madonnas of Leningrad" is Dean's first novel, followed in 2008 by a collection of short stories. Though the two main premises of the novel --the boundaries of memory and a relentless war — are melancholy ones, Dean's richly depicted scenes are, for the reader, akin to the experience of viewing a painting, with great attention to the senses and always an unwavering reverence for beauty. The derelict spaces Marina and her cohorts inhabit become a view into a world that is filled with color, emotion, history and the human experience.