Tuesday, August 5, 2008

City of Thieves

Lev is a thief. Kolya is a deserter. The two meet in prison while awaiting their executions—except they are given one chance to live. If they can find a dozen eggs. In the middle of winter. During the Siege of Leningrad.

City of Thieves
is an apparently fictionalized account of a few days in author David Benioff’s grandfather’s life. His grandfather, Lev, narrates the tale, and it is unclear what, if anything, is based on actual events. He and Kolya encounter thieves, cannibals, prostitutes, and enemy soldiers in their attempts to find the elusive eggs.

Although Lev narrates the tale, he is not the hero. He is only seventeen during the story, but he reads, sounds, and acts like an old man. Instead, the heroic distinction goes to Kolya, a charming, talkative, literature- and sex-obsessed Russian soldier. He and Lev carry on incredibly clever dialogue, including multiple discussions of bowel movements, and I admit I am more than half-in-love with Kolya.

Benioff is a smart and engaging writer. I even learned a few tips from the book, including: in a knife fight slash, don’t stab. He is such a good writer, in fact, that it is easy to forget history.

For example, in the book, the Russian soldiers are the heroes and the German soldiers vicious enemies. However, from everything I’ve read, when it came to torture, rape, and brutality, the Russian army put the Germans to shame. Yet, I easily came to care for and sympathize with a Russian soldier and an NKVD (the precursor to the KGB and responsible for carrying out Stalin’s purges) agent. The beauty of reading, I guess, is that it opens a window to individuals rather than the collective.

Unfortunately, the ending is a bit of a cop-out, a bit manipulative. However, even that is not enough to mar such a smart novel.

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