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David Benioff's City of Thieves: A Review

(Spoiler warning: This post contains major spoilers for David Benioff’s "City of Thieves.")

I read David Benioff’s City of Thieves in a day. That’s all you really need to know, review finished.

But I’ll continue. I randomly found this book at a party, sitting on a coffee table with three other books. Its setting (World War II Russia, St. Petersberg/Leningrad) and its author (David Benioff, who wrote the screenplays of The 25th Hour, X-men Origins: Wolverine, and The Kite Runner) instantly grabbed my attention. Then I spent way too much time reading it. Having read the entire thing in a day or so, I immediately wanted to review it, and explain what post-9/11 war writers can learn from it.

The plot is simple, but classic: a young Jew, Lev Beniov, is unjustly arrested for treason and awaits his execution. Instead of a death sentence, Lev and another prisoner--the charismatic ladies man/writer Kolya--receive a mission: find a dozen eggs for a Colonel’s daughter’s wedding cake. Find the 12 eggs in four days, or die.

Yet this is besieged Leningrad in 1941. The German army surrounds the city, and the people--out of food and starving--resort to eating glue or each other. This is the first remarkable thing about City of Thieves, the omnipresent sense of anarchy, hunger and suffering. The entire city, except for some military officers, is starving, literally to death. Early on, Kolya and Lev encounter brutal cannibals; it makes them wonder where all the meat they’ve been eating comes from...

City of Thieves is a study in wartime chaos. Benioff has a beautiful understanding of war at its worst, gleaned through what must have been meticulous research. The German einsatzkommandos carve off a pretty peasant girl’s ankles for trying to escape forced prostitution. Passage after passage describes the constant hunger, people eating dogs, pigeons, people and books. A good friend dies after getting shot in the ass by Russian soldiers. Kolya sleeps with a preternaturally skinny girl. The heroes find a field of dead dogs in the middle of a forest, each strapped with an anti-tank mine.

Though a few books came close, I haven’t yet read anything this epic, detailed and compelling in a single post-9/11 war memoir.

(Major spoiler follows. Sorry Michael.) This probably has to do with the book’s characters. The core of the book isn’t about war, but the relationship between the two main characters, Lev--the small, big-nosed Jew, son of a famous poet who dreams of making love to a woman--and Kolya, the talkative soldier and braggart. Their conversations are usually pretty brilliant and always readable, with Kolya teaching Lev about Russian literature, war, politics and of course, women. If I’m being honest, the Kolya’s character eventually annoyed me. I get tired of flawless “superman” characters; his only real character flaw is that he annoys the narrator. It’s never a good sign that when a character gets shot, you mutter “Finally.” Still, he is real enough, and like I wrote above, his dialogue is always readable.

I should clarify, I’m not sure City of Thieves will end up as “classic literature” as much as it is just a really good read, written expertly and maturely. Then again, it contains a story within a story, and another character fake narrating his own Russian “classic,” so it has at least a few post modern touches. Despite the horror inside, I wouldn’t describe the book as enlightening, just very, very good story expertly told, and isn’t that enough?

Which brings me to the most interesting part of this book. It is a memoir. Technically, this book is a story within a story, told by Benioff’s grandfather to his grandson. I don’t know if this is true--I have to assume it isn’t. Even the grandfather tells Benioff “You’re a writer. Make it up.”--but this blurring of fact and fiction gives the book more power. Taken with The Things They Carried’s pretense of reality, I’d have to say that the best war literature is fiction pretending to be a memoir; this satisfies the readers lust for “authenticity”, but allows the artist freedom to abandon the facts for the truth.

three comments

I read this book last summer, and I also read it in about a day.

Its very obvious that its written by a screenwriter, I think…the entire time reading it, I thought it would’ve made a great movie.

That said, I like Kolya a lot more than you do. For being such a superman, he is also a coward and a liar…he’s a fratboy stuck in the Great Patriotic War. There’s something very endearing about that, I thought. We all know a Kolya (though probably not one who can come up with “In the slaughterhouse where we first kissed, the air still stunk with the blood of lambs.”).

But it was a great book, a good read about dystopian hell. I didn’t think about it until you mentioned cannibalism, but I’d love to see it compared to Cormac McCarthy’s the road.

Oh, and sorry for not commenting here or being around for a while. I started trying out real jobs and real life.

oh, and I know Odessa =/= St. Peter, but if you want to talk about insurgencies in wartime, you really ought to discuss the 2,500 km of tunnel under odessa” http://atlasobscura.com/blog/mind-boggli..

@ AJK – Good find on the link.