Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Book Review: Monuments Men

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History

I wanted so badly to like this book. I've had it on my to do read for months, if not years, so it was with eager anticipation that I began reading it several weeks ago. I'm a fast reader; I didn't read this slowly because it was dense, or technical, or long; I read it slowly because it was enormously frustrating.

The Monuments Men tells an utterly fascinating story: the efforts of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Architecture division of the American military during the Second World War, tasked with preserving cultural heritage in the wake of the most devastating fighting the world had ever seen.

The men who served in the MFAA division were fascinating, talented individuals who came from all walks of life, and many of them went on to serve in prominent, influential roles in the postwar museum world - most notably, James Rorimer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and George Stout of the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum. Monuments Men identified cultural treasures - buildings, archives, and works of art - in wartorn cities and either worked with soldiers to protect and preserve them before assault on a city or coordinated preservation and conservation efforts after a city had been attacked. After the end of fighting, the division embarked on its most difficult and intensive mission: to find and recover Nazi-pillaged works of art.

The authors are correct in stating that this is a fascinating, previously untold story of the war, and that the world could learn a great deal from the work of the MFAA division - there has been nothing like it since, and cultural patrimony the world over has suffered for it. Imagine if there were a modern version of the MFAA, and how the story of Iraq's museums might be different today.

The trouble is, this book is not that definitive history that the MFAA deserves. It's a cursory, mediocre survey that puts greater weight on movie-style invented dialogue, stereotyped and repetitive biographical development, and the shock and awe value of piles of gold and Rembrandts rather than taking the time to tell a sensitive, thoughtful story.

Inside this book, that story is begging to be told. Instead of an incisive look at the brilliant, tough Rose Valland, the curator at the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris who collaborated with the Nazis in order to track French patrimony as it left the country in the hopes of recovering it someday, the authors reduced her to a two-bit noir character, full of mystery and coy glances and possible weird (and probably invented!) flirtations with James Rorimer.

The trouble is, the book is popular enough that George Clooney optioned it for a movie, which will be coming out this fall. He'll play George Stout, and Matt Damon will play James Rorimer, while Cate Blanchett will hopefully lend some actual substance to Rose Valland, who deserved better. Until I read the book, I was incredibly excited about the idea of Matt Damon as James Rorimer, on whom I've had a museum geek crush for a while now. Hopefully the movie can gloss over the book's flaws and condense its sprawling, incoherent narrative into a driving quest to retrieve masterpieces from their German repositories.

In conclusion: pick this up only if you want the lightest of beach reads and a very cursory introduction to the work of the MFAA division. Do not expect a quality history or you will be disappointed.

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