In an attempt to capture his grandfather’s memories from the besieged Russian city of Leningrad during World War Two, David Benioff stumbled upon something especially liberating: creative license.
But his grandfather told him to stop. “It was a long time ago,” he admitted. “I don’t remember what I was wearing. I don’t remember if the sun came out.”
Benioff stammered that he wanted to get it right.
“You’re a writer,” his grandfather said to him. “Make it up.”
And so he did. The resulting novel, City of Thieves, is like a literary Bing Crosby/Bob Hope buddy movie through the frozen, war-torn landscape of northern Russia.
Benioff’s prose is bare and elegant and frequently excellent. The story he tells is funny in an absurdist, “can you believe this is really happening to us” kind of way that could be depressing and grim if a person stopped to think about it.
But the novel’s two main characters, Lev and Kolya, seldom stop for long. Lev—based on Benioff’s grandfather—has been thrown in jail for looting from the body of a dead paratrooper. Kolya, slightly older and far more worldly than the naîve Lev, has been jailed for deserting. Both crimes are capital offenses.
But the two young men get fished out of prison by a Russian colonel who sends them on a special mission: In a besieged city barren of the most basic foodstuffs, Lev and Kolya must round up a dozen eggs. The colonel needs them so his daughter can have the wedding cake she’s always dreamed of.
The ensuing adventure might sound a little like a cross between James Bond and Indiana Jones. The quest includes cannibals, Russian partisans roaming the countryside, a beautiful female assassin, sub-zero temperatures, women forced into prostitution, Nazis, friendly fire, and a chess match with the highest stakes.
But there’s no melodrama. There’s no larger-than-life action-adventure. There’s only war and the terrible things it makes people do.
“[C]ontrary to popular belief, the experience of terror does not make you braver,” Lev says. “Perhaps, though, it is easier to hide your fear when you’re afraid all the time.â”
Benioff’s prose avoids getting graphic when a writer with a less deft touch might be tempted down the road of gratuity. But more importantly, Kolya’s irrepressibly flippant sarcasm makes everything seem so jaunty.
Kolya’s charm and Lev’s sincerity make them both appealing characters, worth spending time with. Strangers at first, the two grow close over the course of their adventure. Lev must learn how to look beyond Kolya’s levity just as Kolya must learn to look past Lev’s naiveté. The two traits work well off each other, too, though, making Lev the perfect foil for Kolya’s running banter.
Benioff also develops an interesting cast of supporting characters, many who breeze in and out of the narrative like a Siberian wind: You don’t really get to see them, but you can still feel them as they blow by. Only the Nazis, as bad guys, are largely written as stereotypes, and their commander really does seem like a sinister, old-school James Bond foe sans secret volcano lair.
The novel’s sad but satisfying end suggests an especially interesting connection to the novel’s introduction—the true story of Benioff interviewing his grandfather.
City of Thieves, as a novel, allows Benioff to capture the human spirit and the experience of war in a way that a factual telling of his grandfather’s story could not. Lev’s tale, if not factual, is nonetheless true. The real-world Lev recognized that and, fortunately for readers, helped his grandson find freedom.