David Benioff frames City of Thieves as his grandfather’s story of survival during the Siege of Leningrad, and it may be that. But he also tips us off very early that his book is also about story-telling. The narrator is the grandfather, Lev Beniov, a seventeen-year-old Jewish virgin, burdened by self-doubt. He and two friends, on fire-watching duty, find a dead German officer floating toward them in the night sky. They speculate about the cause of his death: “‘He froze to death,’ I told them. I said it with authority because I knew it was true and I had no way to prove it.”
Later on, when Lev has acquired his improbable friend Kolya, the handsome blonde army officer, the two encounter a pair of cannibals who come close to turning them into meat patties. Escaping narrowly, they discuss their luck. “This is the way we decided to talk, free and easy, two young men discussing a boxing match. That was the only way to talk.”
The challenge, writing a book like this, must be how to present the horror in a way that readers can take in. Benioff structures City of Thieves as a kind of picaresque narrative. Lev and Kolya, thrown together by chance, are sent off on a lunatic mission — to find a dozen eggs by a certain deadline, or face certain death. Episode after episode sounds like a folk tale: the cannibals are giants with clubs, for instance. An encounter on a frozen rooftop with the corpse of a bearded old gent named Ruslan (a name from Russian folk tales, I believe) suggests the death of Old Russia.
But Benioff is not a screenwriter for nothing: the over-arching narrative keeps moving and ultimately develops, as it had to, into a battle between good and evil. Fought, naturally, on a chess board. I suppose all these Russian themes might seem annoying or artificial: there is snow, there are forests, there are even wolves heard in the distance. But if you don’t want Russia, I guess you don’t read this book.
I think what carried me along with such deep pleasure was Benioff’s relish for his craft. He is above all a wonderful story teller. And while death and mayhem, starvation and humiliation are the constant background of his narrative, we never lose sight of the fact that the teller does in fact, survive, and is telling this saga a lifetime later. He never masks his anxiety, his inglorious behavior, his folly — but his mordant view of his own behavior is immensely appealing. Here he is leaving a German love-nest at gunpoint, thinking about how all the heroes he’d heard of thought nothing of their courage:
“Heroes and fast sleepers, then [the insomnia is a leitmotiv], can switch off their thoughts when necessary. Cowards and insomniacs, my people, are plagued by babble on the brain.”
The framing device places us with David, the writer, and his elderly grandfather. David has filled tape after tape with the story, and wants more information, but his grandfather has run dry. “It was a long time ago,” he says. “I don’t remember…” David presses him for more detail: “A couple of things still don’t make sense to me–” Lev, the survivor, has the last word:
“‘David,’ he said. ‘You’re a writer. Make it up.’”