Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Book Review: City of Thieves, by David Benioff (2008)

Brianna loaned me this book back in... oh, late summer, I'd guess. Early fall? I'd told her I would read it, and I liked the blurb, but I wasn't really committed. Then, sometime in November, I actually read the first chapter, and was hooked. The first sentence is one of the best opening lines I've ever read:

"My grandfather, the knife-fighter, killed two Germans before he was eighteen."

Unfortunately, I was too deeply engaged in NaNoWriMo to stop and read it, but I resolved to start it the moment I finished my first draft.

City of Thieves is the real-life story of David Benioff's grandfather Lev, and how he survived the brutal siege of Leningrad during the Great Patriotic War. Arrested for looting a dead Nazi's corpse, the young Lev Abramovich Beniov is thrown in jail with a handsome, insufferably cheerful deserter named Kolya. The punishment for their crimes (as it was for all crimes at that period), was summary execution. But instead of being shot and dumped on the ice of the River Neva, the two men are given a chance to save their lives: if they can find one dozen eggs for Colonel Grechko's daughter's wedding cake, and deliver them to him in four days, they go free. If not, well, he took their ration cards, so good luck getting anything to eat in the next few months.

I'd like to give you a little perspective on the complete insanity of such an order: Leningrad had been under siege for months. People were burning railroad ties, and breathing the toxic fumes they released, because being poisoned was still better than freezing to death. People were shelling out a hundred rubles for a cup of dirt from the floor of a bombed-out sugar factory. Pigeons were the only meat available, because all the dogs and cats had already been eaten. As Lev so artfully puts it, "By January the rumors had become plain fact. No one but the best connected could feed a pet, so the pets fed us."

In a city suffering this level of deprivation, Col. Grechko wants them to find not two or three eggs, but twelve!

It's an incredible book. I've never read another book that so artfully mixes comedy and tragedy, frequently in the same breath. At times, I wasn't sure if I was laughing or crying for the two bewildered young men. Lev often comments about the strange beauty of war, even in the midst of its terrible destructive power. There's something oddly poetic about tracer bullets streaking across the night sky. Lev is a deeply sympathetic young man, and Kolya is at once the funniest and most infuriating character I've encountered in a long, long time. He always knows how to make a bad situation worse, and still manages to come away smelling like roses.

This book reminds me a bit of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, with its emphasis on the absurd unreality of warfare. Everything seems so pointless, so hopeless, it's a minor miracle that they even keep moving, when the future is so assuredly grim. But it's kind of inspiring to see how they survived such brutality and danger. It makes me grateful for what I've got, even when the economy's so bad.

After all, it could be worse: you could be living in Russia.


  1. Maybe some people like living in Russia.

    Anyways, nice review. No way am I going to read this book, because I hate the period that deals with Nazis, but the review was good.

  2. No one likes living in Russia. You do it because you're tough, or because you don't have a choice, not because you enjoy it.

  3. How do you know? Have you asked everyone who has ever lived in Russia?