David Benioff’s novel City of Thieves first grabbed my attention on the shelf of my local bookstore, perched alongside eleven other titles that the Little Shop of Stories book group Guys Who Read had discussed in 2011. Yes, you could say this is a guy’s book. Maybe that’s what made me want to read it. I’m not a guy, but the story about two boys embarking on a week-long odyssey to find a dozen eggs in the middle of winter during the Nazi siege of Leningrad in 1942 was a synopsis with potential. Plus, the setting (enhanced by the gorgeous cover art) sounded like my kind of story.
The synopsis has cinematic sweep, too, don’t you think? No surprises there. Benioff is most known for his film career, which began remarkably quickly when he was called in to adapt his first book, The 25th Hour, into a screenplay for the Spike Lee – Edward Norton film. He then went on to write the screenplays for Troy (2004), Stay (2005), The Kite Runner (2007) and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009). He makes a lot of money writing unputdownable books and annoyingly good screenplays, and if that’s not enough, he’s married to Amanda Peet and could himself be Hollywood’s next lead man (have you seen his picture?). All this while he’s still in his thirties. The snob in me wants to remark that none of this would have been possible if his father, Stephen Friedman, wasn’t the former head of Goldman Sachs….just how do you go from teaching high school English to writing a book that gets the attention of Spike Lee?
But mostly I’m just extremely jealous.
I didn’t know all this when Luke and I chose City of Thieves as our together book. I’m glad I didn’t. It would have been agonizing reading such a phenomenal book while wrestling with my deep resentment for the man.
The first chapter is told from a fictional David who has traveled to Florida to record his Russian-American grandparents’ war stories. Until now all we (or David) know is the family legend that their grandfather, Lev, “the knife fighter, killed two Germans before he was eighteen.” This is the last time we hear from David as he humbly bows out of the story. The last word we’re left with is Lev’s carte-blanche permissive to David to be the writer and, where there’s a discrepancy, “make it up.” And so we begin Lev’s story wondering, in spite of the words “A Novel” stamped on the book’s cover, which part is true and which is made up.
The rest of the story is told through Lev Beniov, a self-described “runt from birth,” Russian Jew (non-practicing) and son of the famous poet who years earlier “disappeared,” meaning, the NKVD took him away. When Lev is caught breaking curfew one night (a crime punishable by execution in siege-afflicted Leningrad), he is thrown into a cell with Kolya, a fast talking, handsome, man of the world and womanly-wise Red Army private who, inconveniently, has been accused of deserting. Instead of the execution sentence they both anticipate, they are brought before a terrifying NKVD colonel who is preparing to celebrate his daughter’s wedding. Of the rare delicacies the colonel insists on acquiring despite the loss of life this breaching of ration ordinances will inflict, the one ingredient he still lacks are eggs for the wedding cake. He wants a dozen and the task of finding them has fallen to Lev and Kolya. The duo are given a deadline of one week, a “Get Out of Jail Free” letter from the colonel, and the ultimatum that if they do not return with the eggs they will be killed. And if they choose simply not to return, they will probably die because the colonel has kept their ration cards as insurance.
I hate even to hint at the kind of adventure the boys, who are, I should add, predictably archetypal opposites, will encounter. The one, Kolya, is goodnatured, athletic, confident of his ease with both men and women, and down to Earth in the extreme, to the point that his main concerns during a week where the boys’ lives are continuously threatened are satisfying his sexual needs and relieving his bowels. Lev, on the other hand, is a virgin, a self-proclaimed coward, a former champion chess player (of a minor city league), and in as much as he empathizes with the pitiable characters the pair encounters, he is the empathetic heart of the narrative.
The climax of the novel occurs when they finally encounter the villain of the tale, who Benioff has spent much of the narrative building up to with terrifying suspense-filled effect. Though the character reads like a film stereotype – the schnapps-drinking, prideful Nazi officer whose love for causing human suffering is second only to his commitment to doing so “properly,” with Germanic precision – we fear him just the same, because we suspect his actions, if not his character quirks, are based on historic fact. I don’t think I had read such a suspenseful chapter as the one Benioff crafted for his novel’s climax, since I first discovered the power of the short story in eighth grade when I read “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell. Interestingly, the scene in City of Thieves also involves a game.
But perhaps the clincher for me with this book, and the reason I can’t hate Benioff even though I try, is because he comes wonderfully close to evoking the name of Anna Karenina in the tragic inevitability of the novel’s heartbreaking conclusion. I’ll say no more. Only that you’ll not soon be able to shake the names Kolya and Lev from your mind for many months, if not years, to come.
Much has already been said about the Benioff’s humor-infused narrative, so I won’t dwell too long on this attribute. I’ll add only that, for us, the humor, mostly delivered through Kolya, is what makes the grisly scenes of war and destitution bearable. With it, the novel strikes the same poignant note as Art Spiegleman’s Maus, which I find interesting because of Benioff’s known fandom of comic books and graphic novels. I would love to pursue a line of thought on this blog about how being a visual generation has influenced our critique/requirements of literature. In other words, did I enjoy City of Thieves that much more because Benioff knows how to write a story to my cinematic requirements (a familiar story arch, banter-y dialogue, few monologues, powerful yet sparse descriptions of setting, archetypal characters, lots of sex and violence….)? What do you think?
Also, if you’ve read the novel, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Did you love it? Find it troubling? Are you, like me, a reluctant Benioff fan?