Sunday, January 5, 2014

Books: City of Thieves by David Benioff


David Benioff's City of Thieves (courtesy / Penguin Group)

Here in Maryland temperatures have dipped down into the single digits and City of Thieves by David Benioff is a needed reminder that our worst weather days, or days of any kind, are far better than most of those of WWII. Especially those in Russia.

Benioff prefaces his novel, originally published in 2008, with a conversation with his grandfather, Lev Beniov. There's some real-world confusion around the extent of the elder Benioff/Beniov's basis in reality. In the end it proves an unimportant aside; Lev's story is either entirely fictional or some very slight measure less. Either way, it's one worth hearing.

A 17-year old Lev is imprisoned early in the book during the Siege of Leningrad, the German blockade of the city that began in the fall of 1941. His crime: "looting" the body of a frozen German paratrooper who drifts, still in his parachute, into Lev's besieged neighborhood. Beniov is thrown into prison where he meets a Red Army deserter and fellow prisoner, Kolya Vlasov. Kolya and Lev presumably await the same fate the next day: execution.

The two surprisingly receive a stay of execution on the condition they can complete a whimsical request of an NKVD officer to find and return a dozen eggs for the wedding cake of the officer's daughter. 

So begins their quest in a city that is starving to death en masse.

They manage to venture beyond the encircled city where the bitter cold and lack of food persist, and the likelihood of being killed by Germans only increases. 

Petrograd/Leningrad/St. Petersburg, or as Lev calls it, Piter, is the most Russian of cities and Hitler wants its buildings and populace obliterated. The brutality and totality of the siege are to punctuate his ability to subjugate a nation, its culture, and of course, its people. 

Benioff knows his Russian history and nuance yet writes in an accessible, contemporary manner without it appearing overtly so. Most Russian novels popular in the West carry a certain literary solemnity that rarely merits them "great beach read" accolades. Fortunately with City of Thieves, Benioff balances the weight of this legacy on both shoulders, alternating between the tragic and the comedic of Russian life in a way that few have managed nearly as well.