One of the most perfectly crafted novels I’ve read in a long time, City of Thieves is a multi-layered story told both simply and irresistibly beautifully. It is the tale of a survivor of the German siege of Leningrad during WWII, told to his grandson about a few days spent as a 17-year-old teen in the company of an AWOL Russian soldier, learning about friendship, sex, courage, patriotism, heartache, and love.
Lev, the virginal teenaged Jewish son of a poet father who was “disappeared” by the Soviet secret police under Stalin, is living alone in besieged and starving Leningrad after his mother and sister flee to the countryside. When he is caught searching the body of a dead German parachutist for food, he is tossed into prison to await execution—the wartime punishment for looting. Thrown into the cell with him is Kolya, a 20-year-old blond, blue-eyed literature-spouting hunk of young Russian manhood who got caught AWOL while searching for some female “company.” Execution is also the punishment for desertion. However, both Lev and Kolya are given a reprieve by a high-level Army colonel whose daughter is about to get married, but only if they can do the impossible–bring back a dozen eggs in four days, in time to make her a traditional wedding cake. This in a city whose population has already eaten its pets, and is down to eating shoe leather.
The two set out, first to scour the Leningrad black market to no avail, and then to cross German lines in search of a reputed farm with reputed chickens laying reputed eggs. Their adventures are many and gruesome, including encounters with cannibals, land mines, Russian partisans, and getting taken prisoners-of-war by the Nazis. Throughout, Kolya is determined to teach Lev the art of wooing a woman to his bed, and we are treated to his and Lev’s many and varied opinions on Russia’s vast literary body of works, the art of chess playing, and the mystic connection between constipation and winning war.
If this sounds like a comedy, be assured that it isn’t. It is a tale of the horrors of war, of death, of sacrifice, but it is leavened by Benioff’s lively wit, meticulous research into the city of Leningrad, and learned appreciation of Russia literary tradition. It is most of all a window into the human soul, as we follow Lev in his search for a dozen eggs and learn with him all there is to know about fear and courage.