I’m not sure why, but I’m strangely drawn to novels set in Russia during World War II. City of Thieves, by David Benioff, is short novel set in and around Leningrad during its horrific siege by the Nazis. While Benioff was born and raised in America, City of Thieves has all the hallmarks of a Russian novel, as I’ve come to know them. It’s vulgar and absurd, heroic, and laced with references to Russia’s cultural heritage and Soviet life.
The novel begins with a brief prologue, where the “author” sits down with his grandfather and talks him into telling his story about what happened to him during the war. We get dropped into the middle of the siege with him, as he watches a frozen German paratrooper fall from the sky. After that, Lev keeps ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time. He gets caught as a deserter and taken to the Leningrad NKVD headquarters. Here’s where the absurdity comes in. The colonel in charge is willing to let Lev and his cellmate Kolya go if they can get him a dozen eggs for his daughter’s wedding cake. This is a nearly impossible task given that there is so little food left in the city that people are boiling down book glue to make “library candy.” No one has seen an egg in Leningrad in months. If they can’t provide the eggs within a week, they’ll be shot. Benioff is such a convincing writer that you just go with it, no matter how odd it sounds in retrospect.
The story really takes off once Kolya and Lev decide to try and go to a poultry collective in Mga, a town behind the German lines. Lev continues to get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and gets caught up in a quest with local partisans to take out a sadist Einsatzgruppe Sturmbannfürher. I couldn’t put book down for the last fifty pages, it was that exciting. I hate to give it away, so I’ll quit talking about it before I spoil the ending. This book was so fantastic that I was up until 1:00 last night finishing it. I couldn’t go to sleep until I knew how it all turned out.
I think what I like most about this book is the way that Benioff portrayed the war that the regular people experienced. They were caught between the Germans–whose high command thought that Slavs were sub-human–and their own State police who could shoot them for any offense. Personally, I kept waiting for a bomb to fall on that NKVD colonel’s head to let Lev off the hook. As it was, the resolution of that little mission was poignant and perfectly aggravating (for Lev). And, on top of it all, the siege itself. I don’t think any work of fiction can really illustrate what happened during those three years. This book doesn’t try. It’s about Lev, and how he becomes a man in the space of a few days.
I highly recommend this book, especially for fans of Russian novels and Russian history. The book is pitch perfect and, like I said, I would totally have believed that Benioff was a born and raised Russian if I didn’t know better.