Thursday, June 25, 2009

Book 69: City of Thieves

City of Thieves by David Benioff

I don't remember how I heard of this novel, but I think reading The Madonnas of Leningrad made me want to read another novel about Leningrad during the siege. And damn. This was a really good book.

In the first few pages, Benioff describes his family and his grandparents, and tells of how he wanted to learn about Leningrad from his grandfather. Using his stories, Benioff writes this story - while it appears to be based on these stories, Benioff never claims it to be completely truthful or correct - as his grandfather says, "You're a writer. Make it up."

The rest of the novel uses the grandfather, Lev Beniov, as a narrator. While on guard in Leningrad, he and his friends see a German parachutist land in Leningrad, and rush to find the man. They are discovered going through the dead man's possessions, and the authorities arrest Lev for looting since the corpse is the property of the State. All his friends escape, and don't look back. Looting is punishable by death but Lev is instead singled out to execute an important mission for a local colonel - find a dozen eggs for his daughter's wedding cake by Friday. He has another prisoner, a soldier charged with desertion as a side kick, and together they must find a dozen eggs in a city that has been under siege for months and where some people have taken to cannibalism.

In their search for eggs (if they don't find them, the colonel will kill them, and he has requisitioned their rations cards), they decide they must leave Leningrad for the countryside where they hope to find eggs. They end up behind enemy lines, and become involved with a group of Russian girls that are being held as prostitutes by the Germans and later meet up with a group of partisans.

The novel portrays the deprivations of the city, and the surroundings as well as the devastation that the war has caused. Lev also discusses political issues in the State, since his father, an author, was one of many taken away by the secret police. With all this going on, this novel could have been very dark and depressing. And certainly, Benioff critiques the people with power such as the colonel in this novel and various institutions, but it never got depressing. In fact, I was surprised by how funny the novel was. Even in these horrible situations, Benioff and his grandfather were able to find humor, maybe only in hindsight, but the juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy worked incredibly well in this novel.

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