City of Thieves is so technically astute, I could almost see a watermark of the author's story outline showing faintly on the pages. The two central characters, Kolya, a Red Army deserter with a movie star visage and Lev, a teenage Jew caught looting a German soldier’s corpse, meet cute in a prison cell in Leningrad. The city is under siege, bombed nightly by Luftwaffe, and cut off from all outside assistance. Many of its women and children fled when they could months earlier. The remaining residents starve and freeze to death in such numbers that their bodies pile up in the streets, stripped of valuables and edible flesh.
The two prisoners are set free by a high-ranking Russian army official after one night in prison, but he gives the hapless pair a mission in exchange for their release. Their quest is simple, but seemingly impossible in this city where dirt and glue are primary food groups: Lev and Kolya have one week to find one dozen eggs for a wedding cake. The consequence of failure is death. The novel becomes the near-surreal Odyssey of the Eggs. Lev and Kolya make it out of Leningrad (only after a narrow escape from cannibals) and enter the heaven and hell of occupied Russia in the depths of winter.
Benioff’s writing is deft. The novel is presented as a retelling of events by a grandfather (Lev) to his writer-grandson, but the modern world slips away the moment the narrative begins in Leningrad. Benioff quickly introduces the central conflict- a hunt for eggs- and we are drawn into the quest. The near-deadly obstacles that prevent Lev and Kolya from resolving their conflict - the harsh weather, their weakness from lack of food and adequate shelter, the constant terror of being caught by the German army- roll out from Benioff’s pen until he introduces a sub-plot that nearly derails the egg hunt. The sub-plot is resolved in the nick of time and Lev and Kolya are once more set upon their path. There is an additional meet-cute wrapped up with a bow in the novel’s final pages, in a bittersweet ending that provides both resolution and loss. A full cast of characters drift in or crash through the pages, providing contrasts of evil and good, sometimes in the same person. And isn’t this the classic theme of war? It is the ultimate setting for showing the best and the worst of humanity.
Tight, taut, clean and sharp is Benioff’s narrative structure. But his story is full of blood, guts, and passion. Benioff does a very skilful job of balancing our need to feel for the characters by giving them dimension and emotional depth but resists sentimentality by injecting black humor and bizarre events. The gallows humor struck a chord with me. For it is humor, even this coarse and black, that allows us to acceptably articulate the most horrific of circumstances.
There are qualities of the absurd and the fantastic to Benioff’s story, but I did not have the sense that he was after a factual account. He tells a story- a strange and terrible, wonderful and heartbreaking fable- that is part coming-of-age, part buddy tale, part witness to the insanity of war. The larger-than-life characters, the gruesome scenes that are juxtaposed with the hysterically funny, even the absurdity of the quest for the eggs, keep novel from becoming a self-serious sermon posing as fiction.
I sense Benioff has a screenplay in the works- he is an accomplished screenwriter- and this is ready-made for the big screen. I’ve already pegged Brad Pitt for blond-haired, blue-eyed beautiful Kolya, (though Brad may be getting on in years- I’m showing my age, I know); Lev would have to be a relative newcomer ripped from the cast of “Glee”…
I will not soon forget this story and I tip my hat to Benioff as a writer, a storyteller, and a student of the craft. Bravo.