In the opening chapter of David Benioff’s novel City of Thieves, a screenwriter named David beseeches his Russian-born grandfather to tell him about his experiences during the siege of Leningrad during World War II. The old man complies, and a novel is born. Or is it?
See, David Benioff is indeed an American-born screenwriter of Russian descent. Could this improbable story of a knife-wielding Russian patriot be true?
“Coincidence … contrivance,” the author insists. Okay, I’ll go along. But did I mention the protagonist’s name in Lev Beniov? Come on, David, you’re toying with me.
Fact, fiction, fantasy, or flim-flam, City of Thieves deserves to be at the top of your short list of novels you’ve missed. Published in 2008, this New York Times Bestseller still hasn’t gained the readership nor the renown it deserves.
Once past the charming, if cryptic, opening chapter, we are transported to Leningrad just after New Years 1942, where seventeen-year-old Lev Beniov informs us ‘You have never been so hungry; you have never been so cold.’ A few short pages later we are famished and shivering and scanning the black night sky for German bombers.
But this is a modern Russian—Soviet—tale full of the traditional humor and irony you’d expect, yet blessedly lacking in the prosaic extravagance associated with bearded authors of another Russian age. Benioff is a modern writer, with an ear for tradition, but a screenwriter’s sensibilities for precision and propulsion.
Before you can spell Dostoyevsky young, self-doubting Lev and a stout, Slavic stranger named Kolya, are plucked from the ‘enemy of the state’ execution line and recruited for a mission to procure the dozen fresh eggs necessary to bake a wedding cake. Absurd? Not to a Russian boy already sentenced to die.
The starving Lev and Kolya, the stout, more experienced Slav, set off on their quest to find a dozen fresh eggs along a countryside so choked by the fascists that cannibalism has become a gruesome industry. Gallows humor abounds. But this is Russia, no matter what the Politburo insists on calling it, and writers have been wringing poignancy out of deprivation for centuries. Benioff is true to his heritage. Horror and humor cuddle side by side in this achingly human story of friendship and survival.
This is one of those books that begs to be read twice. The plot, the action, the struggle—even the cold—propel us to turn the pages. We become involved. We care. We actually shiver. We pang for a blackened potato, or half an onion, or bread almost certainly made from sawdust.
But on the second reading, we can stop to savor the poetry. The ironies that lie hidden behind the need to survive. All for a dozen eggs. All for a wedding cake. All in the shadow of Leningrad, and one of the bleakest chapters mankind has ever written.
City of Thieves is an American novel in the same way some vodkas are American. Take that for what it’s worth.
If you missed this novel in 2008, put it on your short list of books to catch up on.
City of Thieves
By David Benioff
Originally published by Viking
Available in paperback from Plume
editor's note: All reviews are the sole opinion of the author. They are not an endorsement by Page & Spine. -NKW
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