I’m not a fan of first person narration. I’m also not a fan of historical fiction set in the 20th century. I’m not a WWII buff of any kind. I’m having a hard time giving a shit about Russia. Before you look any more leery about this inauspicious beginning, please note MY BOOK CLUB MADE ME DO IT.
Just kidding. Sorta. While my book club did, in fact, vote this book into my life, it’s only fair to say I voted for it, too. The whole point of joining a book club (outside of the excuse to drink and talk about books) is to read outside of your comfort zone.
The market is saturated with books set in WWII, and yet this is only the second (fictional) one I’ve ever read. I suppose, as someone who has always struggled to define myself as “well read” (whatever that actually means), it’s a shameful confession. But I’m not really ashamed. Historical fiction in WWII frankly doesn’t interest me. The only other fictional WWII narrative I’ve ever read is Slaughterhouse-Five, and I don’t think anyone ever accused it of being a “historical novel.” This is my roundabout way of saying I didn’t have any real expectations or point of reference for the time period or setting, outside of my own scanty WWII knowledge. I don’t have an ideal perspective. But that’s ok, because good fiction doesn’t require an ideal perspective, and this is good stuff.
Lev Beniov, our narrator and “hero,” is seventeen and living alone in besieged city of Leningrad, when a dead Nazi falls from the sky. Looting is a crime, but Lev and his friends are starving and too tempted by the possibility of food to be cautious, and before the night is out, he finds himself in the infamous Crosses prison. Charismatic army deserter Kolya has also been brought to the Crosses to face punishment, which for just about every crime is execution. The two are spared, however, and given an impossible mission to save their lives: find a dozen eggs for a wedding cake in a city subsisting on sawdust and glue.
Lev and Kolya are a traditional odd couple; Lev is skinny, awkward and cautious, Kolya is handsome, verbose and fearless; there are shades of Don Quixote in the pairing- Lev acts as the sensible Sancho to Kolya’s delusional knight-errant as they wander into more and more dangerous places. Considering many of the situations they encounter are truly horrific, including desperate wartime cannibals, Nazi death squads and attempted assassinations, it’s amazing how much humor Benioff is able to pull off, almost purely through the conversations of Lev and Kolya. The humor, mostly dark but sometimes even picaresque, buoys the narrative up over the depressing circumstances of wartime privation. The horror is still there, but there is a fine balance between the death and darkness of the war, and the often ridiculous back and forth between Lev and Kolya, that keeps it from sinking into tragedy.
If Lev’s last name didn’t give it away, City of Thieves is based on family legend. David Benioff’s grandfather, a quiet, unassuming Jewish immigrant, is the Lev of the tale, and the fact that a Russian teenager met his wife, made his best friend, killed two Germans, and lost part of his index finger all in one week during the Second World War is true. The rest is pure, brilliant fiction.