The City Thieves keeps turning up in my life. JB and I both have two copies of it, I think. Either that, or they are moving around our respective houses on their own. Which is creepy if you think about it. So after literally tripping over it for a few months, I finally picked it up and gave it a whirl.
Told in first person as a story to the narrator’s grandson, The City Thieves is the story of Lev Beniov, a young Russian Jew living in Leningrad during the siege of the city. With the Germans approaching from every angle, he sends his mother and sister out of the city and stays behind to watch for the enemy on the roof of his apartment building each night with a handful of friends. One night, they see a dead German paratrooper coming in, and breaking curfew, they loot the corpse. Lev is the only one caught, having stopped to help the lone girl in their ragtag platoon escape, and is arrested. In jail, he meets Kolya, an alleged Army deserter. The punishment for both of these crimes is death by firing squad, but the local Colonel offers to postpone their execution with a challenge: find a dozen eggs for his daughter’s upcoming nuptials. The city is starving. Lev hasn’t eaten in days. The last time he saw eggs – let alone a chicken – was over six months ago. It’s an impossible mission, but one that Lev and Kolya have no choice but to accept. And so, armed with two army ration cards and 300 rubles, they set out to find the Colonel’s eggs.
“That’s our plan? We’re going to walk fifty kilometers, right past the Germans, to a poultry collective that maybe didn’t get burned down, grab a dozen eggs, and come home?”
“Well, anything would sound ridiculous if said it in that tone of voice.”
Amazon’s summary says this is a “bittersweet coming-of-age” story with “an oddly touching buddy narrative”, and that’s the perfect description for the story. But Benioff goes further, and infuses the boys with a sense of realness. Yes, Kolya is full of swaggering bravado, but he’s also a young kid, just barely in to his twenties, and the reader catches quick glimpses of that youth. And Lev is terrified, but he’s also a seventeen-year-old boy, and when presented with a girl – a nearly naked girl at that – he’s suddenly not as concerned about the encroaching Nazis and more concerned about what to do with this nearly naked girl. And, too, there are moments of humor amidst the horror that felt very natural.
“What’s the good news?”
“You said the bad news is we’re going the wrong way.”
“There isn’t any good news. Just because there’s bad news doesn’t mean there’s good news, too.”
Benioff, who, interestingly, is one of the show runners for Game of Thrones, based City of Thieves on his grandfather’s tales of life during World War II. He is skilled at lulling the reader in to a sort of complacency, and then suddenly foisting a grisly moment on to the page, which I would imagine is how life really is during a way – long stretches of normalcy punctuated by brief interludes of horror. The descriptions of war-torn Russia are beautiful and brutal in equal measure. One can envision the snow flakes drifting down during Lev and Kolya’s trek across the frozen Russian countryside, but, just as easily, the reader can smell the gunpowder and feel the heat of the blood spreading across that same snow, melting it as it goes. He’s also extremely adept at building the reader’s anxiety; I nearly gave myself heart palpitations reading about the to-the-death chess match between Lev and a Nazi commander, who was slyly sadistic and extraordinarily well-written. In fact, all the characters – whether they were on the page for a minute or a chapter or the whole story – were perfectly fleshed out.
Don’t look so sad. You saved my life tonight.”
I shrugged. I was afraid that if I opened my mouth I would say something mawkish and stupid, or worse, that I would start to cry on a night like this one, and I was convinced that the sniper from Archangel was the only girl I would ever love.
Her gloved hand still rested on my cheek. “Tell me your last name.”
“I’ll track you down, Lev Beniov. All I need is the name.” She leaned forward and kissed me on the lips. Her mouth was cold, her lips rough from the winter wind, and if the mystics are right and we are doomed to repeat our squalid lives ad infinitum, at least I will always return to that kiss.
Spoiler: Lev returned to that kiss over and over, because she came back, and they lived happily ever after, which is exactly as it should be.