By David Benioff
Viking, 258 pp., $24.95
“I thought it was strange that powerful violence is often so pleasing to the eye, like tracer bullets at night,” says Lev Beniov, the protagonist and narrator of City of
As Lev sums up: “The days had become a confusion of catastrophes; what seemed impossible in the afternoon was blunt fact by the evening. German corpses fell from the sky; cannibals sold sausage links made from ground human in the Haymarket; apartment blocs collapsed to the ground; dogs became bombs; frozen soldiers became signposts; a partisan with half a face stood swaying in the snow, staring sad-eyed at his killers.”
And yet from this gruesome and bizarre state of things, drawn from one of the nightmare passages of the 20th century, the siege of
Lev is 17 years old, living on his own in the starving city, where people are eating “library candy,” the glue from the binding of books, and selling the dirt from a bombed-out food warehouse because it contains melted sugar. Lev’s father is dead, a victim of Stalin’s tyranny; his mother and sister have fled to the country. When he is arrested for looting the corpse of a German paratrooper who froze to death before he hit the ground, Lev is thrown together in prison with a dashing, clever, handsome Cossack named Kolya, who has been arrested for desertion, though he had just slipped away from his unit to look for a woman to relieve his perpetual horniness.
To avoid execution, Lev and Kolya agree to an absurd mission: to find a dozen eggs so the daughter of a colonel can have a wedding cake. They venture out into the frozen no-man’s-land between the city and the German army, an odd couple who will become a trio when they’re joined by Vika, a sharpshooting guerrilla who may be an agent for the NKVD, the secret police that arrested and murdered Lev’s father. Vika is a woman about Lev’s age, disguised as a boy.
City of Thieves is premised on the possibility that it may not be entirely fiction. It begins with a screenwriter named David – Benioff adapted his first novel, The 25th Hour, for the movies, and wrote the screenplays for The Kite Runner and the forthcoming Wolverine, the latest in the X-Men series – visiting his grandparents in
That metafictional tease aside, City of
The plot is as formulaic as a buddy movie – Butch and Sundance in