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>City of Thieves

March 29, 2010

>ReadersGuide liked David Benioff’s City of Thieves, about the siege of Leningrad during WWII, so when we decided to read together for an afternoon–as much “together” as we could, considering our time zones are three hours apart–I chose it as my indulgence for the day, and found it a good story in which to get lost for a while.

Although the first chapter begins to frame the story as biography, the end of the chapter reveals a fictional component, and the rest of the book certainly reads like fiction, down to the ending, which has some delightful links to that first chapter, but ultimately can’t be pinned down as true or false. It’s as if the book is one of the folk tales told by the grandmother of the first chapter, “most of them gruesome; children devoured by wolves and beheaded by witches.”

What the people in Leningrad were devouring certainly tends towards the gruesome: At the market, the narrator, Lev, sees “glasses of dirt…Badayev Mud, they called it, taken from the ground under the bombed food warehouse and packed with melted sugar.” He buys and eats some “library candy, made from tearing the covers off of books, peeling off the binding glue, boiling it down, and reforming it into bars you could wrap in paper.” And on his quest for the impossible, to find a dozen eggs for a high-ranking officer who wants them for his daughter’s wedding cake, Lev and his friend Kolya see more than one instance of cannibalism; Leningrad was “a city where witches roamed the streets, Baba Yaga and her sisters, snatching up children and hacking them to pieces.”

Within the story, there’s the kind of passion for literature that I haven’t often found outside literature. A room full of hungry and tired people have this conversation:

“Do you know who’s a vile little cunt?” asked Kolya out of nowhere. “Natasha Rostov.”
The name was familiar, but I couldn’t place it right away.
Sonya frowned but did not look up from her knitting. “The girl in War and Peace?”
“I can’t stand that bitch. Everyone falls in love with her–all of them, even her brothers–and she’s nothing but a vapid twit.”
“Maybe that’s the point,” said Sonya.
I was half asleep but I smiled. In spite of all his irritating qualities, I couldn’t help liking a man who despised a fictional character with such passion.

Of course I agree with Lev; I can’t help liking Kolya, and neither can anyone else in the story. He literally disarms even his enemies with his potent charm. He also guesses who Lev’s famous grandfather was, adding a level to the fiction by naming him Abraham Beniov, the great Russian poet. It really sounds like Lev could be the grandfather of the author, just a little spelling change of the name, but the name is purely fictional, something I’d guess most readers wouldn’t suspect at this point in the story but swallow whole and go on, much like Lev, who says “I was seventeen and stupid and I believed him.” Later in the story, another fictional Russian author is revealed to actually be a character we know well, one who has been telling Lev a story all along.

Lev and Kolya end up pursuing the scariest of the folk-tale monsters, the legendary “youngest major in the Einsatzgruppen,” Abendroth, who is “the worst of them,” as shown by the story they are told about how he sawed off the feet of a Russian girl who tried to run away and borne out by their witnessing of his selection and subsequent slaughter of a group of Russian prisoners. Abendroth could order any appalling act he could think of in Lev’s world, a world in which “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.”

The final confrontation with Abendroth, who “had slaughtered thousands of men, women, and children as he followed the Wehrmacht across Europe,” turns out to center on a chess match with Lev, whose life is promised to him by the monster–much like Scheherazade’s–but who is able to trick and destroy him with the help of his friends.

Even when you think the clever friends are through the woods and on their way home, the ending still has surprises. Because the survivors are characters who don’t lock the door of their house and don’t wear their seat belts in the car, one of them a boy who “knew I would never see her again” in a story where no one can know anything for sure.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. March 29, 2010 6:37 pm

    >My goodness, this sounds lovely based solely on the quote you share. I also react very strongly to characters in literature! I haven't read War & Peace, but I generally hate vapid women getting that much attention. I feel like I'd get along quite well with Kolya 😉

  2. March 29, 2010 6:47 pm

    >I like surprise endings (I may not always like what happen in them, though), if they are well done! I recently added this book to my TBR pile, so hopefully I'll get to it soon.

  3. March 30, 2010 1:28 pm

    >Kolya sounds like a man after my own heart. My friend Lauren and I are always getting into long impassioned arguments about literary characters we like and don't like. She doesn't like Mr. Rochester! We go ten rounds about that one practically every time she's in town. 😛

  4. March 30, 2010 7:14 pm

    >Aarti, It is a lovely book (just as ReadersGuide said). Evidently, people in Leningrad were actually reading War and Peace during the siege.Valerie, It's not a complete surprise, just a bit more realistic than some folk tales.Jenny, I have a hard time imagining someone who wouldn't like Kolya.

  5. March 30, 2010 7:16 pm

    >Also Jenny, I saw a new book out today told from the viewpoint of the guy in Sense and Sensibility who's in love with Marianne, and marveled again that there are people (Amanda) who don't like him. Not to sound one note this week, but he was played by Alan Rickman in the movie (so what's not to like?)

  6. March 31, 2010 2:57 pm

    >I'm really glad you liked it. My copy could be returned if I didn't like ti for 2 free books, but I let the deadline lapse so I'm hopeful I won't want to return it.

  7. March 31, 2010 3:38 pm

    >Jodie, I think your hope is well founded!

  8. April 3, 2010 8:13 pm

    >Sounds like a powerful book. I've been wanting to read it for awhile. I hope it's okay to link to your post on War Through the Generations.–AnnaDiary of an Eccentric

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