A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Under Siege

The following review appeared today in the Dallas Morning News:

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 Thieves. Powerful violence is everywhere in David Benioff’s novel.

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 Leningrad, comes an immensely readable novel, a sort of picaresque thriller, that celebrates humanity while at the same time exposing the depths of cruelty to which human beings can sink.

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 Florida. His grandfather tells him about his wartime experiences, but when David presses for more details, retorts: “You’re a writer. Make it up.” So David proceeds to make it up, in his grandfather’s voice.

That metafictional tease aside, City of Thieves is a book rife with ironies and a kind of existential absurdity, but Benioff resists the impulse to preach at us. The most he does is introduce an occasional wry observation: “Kolya seemed fearless, but everyone has fear in them somewhere; fear is part of our inheritance. Aren’t we descended from timid little shrews that cowered in the shadows while the great beasts stomped past?”

The plot is as formulaic as a buddy movie – Butch and Sundance in Russia. But Benioff puts flesh on the formula with skills at characterization that are first-rate – Kolya is a particularly memorable creation, and both Lev and Vika come alive for the reader – and his careful attention to landscape, his research into the horrors of the siege, and his deft use of vivifying detail give the novel an unexpected and very welcome richness.