The mind is at the same time both a powerful and frail thing. We see the incredible creative ability of writers, composers, and artists—like Mozart, Rembrandt, and Jane Austen. We marvel at those like da Vinci and Edison who bring into being new inventions. And we make legends of geniuses like Newton and Einstein who discovered and explained aspects of the universe most of us would never have dreamed of. Yet, sooner or later, for all the incredible feats that have been achieved, we all have moments when our minds seem not to work: we act contrary to common sense, we forget a familiar co-worker’s name, we have difficulty understanding our 10-year-old daughter’s math homework. And the older we get, the more common these incidents become.
The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean explores this paradox, specifically the capricious and unpredictable nature of memory. Marina was a tour guide in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad when the Germans invaded Russia in 1941 and marched toward the city. Having worked feverishly to help take down and store the museum’s treasures, she left her apartment and took refuge with thousands of other museum employees and their families. She endured the terrible privations shared by those caught and trapped in the city for twenty-nine months.
As the bitterly cold first winter drags on and people suffer, lose hope, and in many cases, die Marina fights the despair by building a “memory palace,” a mental recreation of the museum where all the paintings still hang on the walls and the sculptures still stand in their places. Here the beauty and significance of life persevere, giving her something to focus on besides the suffering around her. She realizes that, “If she lets all the paintings disappear, she will be gone with them.”
Now, in the present day, Marina has Alzheimer’s, and her memory is failing her. She blanks out for periods of time; she doesn’t recognize family members; she puts plums in the dryer with the wet clothes. She vaguely realizes that something is wrong but doesn’t really understand what and has no way to combat it. But as her memory fades, she increasingly retreats to her old “memory palace” where all is familiar and nothing changes. As it did during the terrible days of the siege, her Hermitage constitutes an anchor for her soul. Here, in the faces of the Madonnas, she relives the joy, peace, and wonder which elude her in the present.
Dean evoked a number of emotions in me. I was curious to see the wondrous paintings Marina saw and loved. I was amazed at the suffering and perseverance of those who survived those horrible years in besieged Leningrad. I was frustrated along with Marina as how disjointed her world became. I was heartbroken with Dmitri, Marina’s devoted husband, who watches his wife slowly slip away while at the same time he is less and less able to care for her. But most of all, I am impressed with the importance of embracing the beauty of my world so that I can be encouraged and find hope in darker days.