City of Thieves, by David Benioff (Viking, 2010) is an almost flawless narrative. Set in Leningrad and surrounding regions during the siege in the Second World War, it chronicles the search of a 17-year old boy (Lev) and a young deserter from the Russian Army (Kolya) for a dozen eggs. If they fail, they’ll be shot. But that threat seems almost incidental as they make their way across deserted frozen farmlands. They are threatened and then captured by Nazis. They escape and flee. They fall in with a group of Freedom Fighters. They encounter scenes of brutality and cruelty.
The narrative is framed. The grandson of the main character begins by asking his grandfather to talk about his experiences in the Second World War. After he begins to talk, the grandson disappears until the last pages of the book.
World War II now seems like such a distant event. As those who participated in the war die, memories disappear, and only official histories survive, along of course with records—memoirs, oral accounts, films, and so on. But the living memories die with the participants. Moreover, the war’s Eastern Front is one Western readers don’t often think about—yet more men died, more battles were fought, more suffering and carnage occurred, on the Eastern Front than the Western. (Some accounts say thirty million Russians died in the war). City of Thieves is an entirely fictional story but it brings the war to life through the eyes of a 17-year old who worries about still being a virgin, who’s afraid of death, but who also is ready for adventures.
Some of the scenes in the city are nightmarish. The siege has gone on so long that people are dying of starvation or killing one another for food. In one scene the main characters meet a man who is selling human flesh. In another they meet a man who is nearly dead from starvation. Friends are killed when an apartment building is bombed and collapses.
City of Thieves describes horrors, but it doesn’t dwell on them. it just moves on. The result is an intensification of the horrors, and at the same time a dispassionate disengagement from them. The overall tone of the story is gently comic, governed by the bragging tales and jokes of the deserter Kolya, who claims to be writing a great novel and who never admits to being a deserter until the end.
Events from the past have tangible impacts on the present. City of Thieves is about how a 17 year old experienced the war, but it’s also about the other narrator’s genealogy, how he came to be.