Reading City of Thieves is a bit like getting to know a brilliant drunkard, someone who has poetry at their fingertips and who has experienced sorrow, and euphoria, and who has a passion for life, but also someone who is slightly out of control, teetering and tottering down the street, incapable of refraining from cursing a vulgar, potty-mouthed blue streak. Yes, it’s quite a book.
Here is my brief, non-spoilery plot summary: Lev, a scrappy Russian Jew with a tough history, and Kolya, an arrogant but charming army deserter, hunt across Leningrad at the height of the German siege to find a dozen fresh eggs. It’s basically impossible. If they fail, they’re dead men.
The plot works well, and with David Benioff also being a screen writer, he keeps things moving along at a smart pace. Terrible threats, uncertainty, possible love interest, and tiny bits of hope all threaten to carry away Lev, our pessimistic and worried protagonist. Kolya- his traveling companion- is Lev’s alter ego, charming and utterly fearless, at ease with pretty women and psychotic killers. Benioff does a great job of playing the two off of each other. It’s interesting as I think about it; Hollywood churns out buddy movies by the dozen, but there are too many “buddy-books”, and yet City of Thieves managed to pull off being an incredible buddy book.
Besides the main characters, Benioff does a fabulous job of tackling the history of the moment. St. Petersburg- aka Piter– is a major character in this book as well. Benioff successfully articulates the suffering, the cold, and the hunger of this “city of ghosts”
Finally, there is the issue of war itself. I think that Benioff does a good job of balancing things out. He is not so adamantly antiwar as Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughter-House-Five) or Joseph Heller (Catch-22), he knows that the Russians were defending their country, but he’s also not afraid of framing the absurdities, the insanity, and indefensible cruelties of war. In short, I think he does a good job of maintaining perspective.
If this book were an animal, it would be a drunken fairy tale swan. One that can talk and who wears a crown. A Royal and regal thing, but out of its element, stuck on a river of ice, tripping over its big, rubbery feet (it would rather swim) and cursing and laughing at its own fate, downing vodka.
If this book were drink, it would be “Seven Layers of Sin” which is the name that Kolya gives to some wood grain vodka that he purchases during the siege. This wood alcohol, the man from whom they buy it explains, is perfectly safe if first poured through a handkerchief folded seven times over.
As a warning: Set as it is in extreme and desperate times, City of Thieves contains a lot of graphic language (including intimate descriptions of sex acts, and genitalia, and excrement) and descriptions of seriously nasty violence. Not recommended for folks who don’t like these kinds of nasty descriptions.