My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a story that you don’t dare laugh at–but you will. Beyond that, it is a rare book, a little masterpiece, an amazing story that takes place on the border between hope and despair. But I wonder about the title, by which I mean, is City of Thieves the best title to convey the power of the book?
Sure, it’s clear the city of thieves is Leningrad (the old St. Petersburg or “Piter” as it’s described in this novel). Reading, I experience Leningrad in 1942 as a city of destruction, starvation and horror–but this story is so much more than the suffering that takes place. Hand in hand with suffering is comedy, written in a way that dilutes neither. The story mixes brutality and cruelty with lighthearted everyday, ghoulish reality, scene by scene, luring the reader with hope that a miracle will take place.
With the backdrop the horrifying siege of Leningrad by the German army in WWII, David Benioff tells the tale of two state “criminals” trying to save their own lives. Captured by the Russian army for unrelated and irrelevant “criminal activities”, their only way to save themselves is to please the Russian commander by finding eggs for his daughter’s upcoming wedding. Given there’s not even one live chicken left in the besieged city, this is an epic and doomed order.
Kolyna’s the extroverted movie star type, a Russian soldier himself and deserter with blond hair, high Cossack cheek bones and blue “Aryan” eyes. He is writing a fake Russian novel. In the week during which this novel takes place, he becomes best friends with a 17 year old looter,Lev Beniov (notice the last name similarity to the author) a Jewish runt with a big nose and acne who steals a knife from a dead German and ends up killing two live ones. Lev’s the son of a famous agitator poet, a virgin and a superior chess player. By any odds, these two shouldn’t have even lived through the week and yet –I won’t give it away, but one thing you have to know, they do find a live chicken–it turns out to be a rooster. Just suffice it to say everything these two friends do is completely believable. And so is Vika, the crack shot woman sniper, who joins them for the finale (and the prologue).
This novel is unique; I can’t think of a single title to do it justice. So just leave it City of Thieves. On every page I read I realized that life is amazing, any life, and moreover, it’s so funny in a deep and deadly way.