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City of Thieves


City of Thieves

David Benioff’s second novel (following THE 25th HOUR) is a modern masterpiece, a work that is both heartstopping and heartbreaking and one worthy of occupying the same shelf as wartime classics like CATCH-22 and SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE. From its opening sentence to its vivid and richly satisfying ending, every note Benioff strikes is perfect and true.

The novel opens as a disgruntled young screenwriter named David is assigned to write an autobiographical essay about his “intensely dull life.” Instead, he travels to the Florida Gulf Coast, where his Russian immigrant grandparents have retired after selling their small Brooklyn-based insurance company. He turns on a tape recorder for a week and captures his grandfather’s remarkable story of survival during the siege of Leningrad in January 1942, “the week he met my grandmother, made his best friend, and killed two Germans.”

“You have never been so hungry, you have never been so cold,” begins Lev Beniov’s tale. A chess-playing 17-year-old virgin, self-conscious about his sexual inexperience and his large nose, he finds himself in “Piter,” its residents’ shorthand name for Leningrad before the Bolshevik Revolution. His father, a writer, has been spirited away several years earlier by the secret police, and his mother and sister have fled to the countryside, leaving Lev alone with two young friends in a grim apartment block as the city endures nightly German bombing raids and slowly starves to death.

When Lev is arrested for stripping the belongings from a dead German pilot who has parachuted into the street outside his apartment, he is dumped into a dreaded prison nicknamed “death’s waiting room.” There he meets Kolya, a young private in the Red Army who has been arrested for desertion. Kolya, as Lev describes him, is “a braggart, a know-it-all, a Jew-baiting Cossack,” whose “confidence was so pure and complete it no longer seemed like arrogance, just the mark of a man who had accepted his own heroic destiny.” Kolya fancies himself an expert on women and Russian literature, tantalizing his companion with stories of his sexual exploits and regaling Lev with lengthy excerpts from a novel entitled THE COURTYARD HOUND, the revelation of whose authorship ultimately provides startling insights into Kolya’s character.

Instead of summary execution for their crimes, Lev and Kolya are offered a bizarre opportunity to escape their fate. Colonel Grechko, of the NKVD, dispatches them to find a dozen eggs for his daughter’s wedding in six days. They soon exhaust their efforts to unearth the prize in the grim precincts of Leningrad, “a city of ghosts and cannibals,” and the ever-confident Kolya persuades Lev to strike out with him for an agricultural collective, 30 miles distant and deep behind German lines, on the slim hope they’ll find the precious eggs in time to guarantee their survival.

The two young men trudge across a surrealistic winter landscape, encountering mounds of dead dogs, soldiers frozen waist deep in snow and young farm girls held captive for the pleasure of German soldiers. When they meet a group of partisans, led by a red-haired female sharpshooter named Vika, they’re slowly transformed from a pair of feckless vagabonds into determined fighters. The climactic gamble Vika, Kolya and Lev make to obtain the precious eggs, involving a chess game with a sadistic Einzatsgruppe commander, begs to be read in one breath.

Benioff’s novel is packed with enough action to fill the most absorbing thriller --- gunfights, brutal hand-to-hand combat and hairsbreadth escapes. What allows the book to transcend the limitations of workmanlike genre fiction is the patient and revelatory way in which it exposes such a broad range and depth of human emotions. Fear, courage, heroism and barbarism all are on display in abundance. Most captivating of all is the story’s depiction of the odd but seemingly inevitable path Lev and Kolya tread toward true friendship. Kolya assumes for himself the task of leading his younger companion to maturity, and Lev, gradually and sometimes grudgingly, finds his affection growing for his bravehearted friend. That Benioff delivers all of this in a tightly-written 250 pages makes the achievement of CITY OF THIEVES all the more remarkable.

We read novels for a host of reasons --- for escape, to deepen our understanding of human character, or for the pleasure of well-crafted prose. Every one of those elements is present in this shatteringly beautiful and brilliant work. And on rare occasions we’re handed a gift of a novel that’s so filled with truth it has the power to change the way we look at the world. CITY OF THIEVES is one of them.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg( on December 27, 2010

City of Thieves
by David Benioff

  • Publication Date: March 31, 2009
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 258 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • ISBN-10: 0452295297
  • ISBN-13: 9780452295292