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City of Thieves by David Benioff

City of Thieves by David Benioff, which was the May book club selection, is set during WWII on the Western front of the war between 1942 and 1945, though mostly during the nearly 900 day siege of Leningrad, which was cut off from supplies of food and more.  Lev and Kolya are thrown together by circumstance when Lev is arrested as a looter when a dead German is found in his neighborhood and he’s discovered taking items off the body and is sent to the Crosses.  Kolya a Red Army deserter is thrown in the Crosses where he meets Lev.  The dynamic between these characters is full of initial paranoia, which morphs into irritation and finally camaraderie.  Kolya loves to chat about anything and everything, but he’s particularly boastful about his sexual exploits and his experience with just about everything related to war.  He’s pompous but in a comical way, and he reminds me of those wise jesters in the king’s court who uses humor to slice to the root of truth, even at times when it could be fatal.  Lev is a young boy who often portrays himself as an older young man or younger as it is convenient to the situation.

“There was something oddly comforting in Kolya’s consistency, his willingness to make the same jokes — if you could call them jokes — over and over again.  He was like a cheerful senile grandfather who sat at the dinner table with beet soup splattered on his collar, telling once more the story of his encounter with the emperor, though everyone in his family could recite it now from memory.” (page 161)

The beginning almost sets it up as a framed story in which the author or someone with the same name as the author hears the story from his grandfather, the knife fighter.  It’s not a far stretch to imagine the beginning chapter sets the story up to read similar to a memoir of David’s grandfather, Lev Beniov.  However, the frame is never closed literally by the end of the story, which is good in this case because it provides the story with a greater emotional impact.

“Wick lamps lit the small apartment and out long shadows crept across the walls, across the frayed rugs on the floor, the brass samovar in the corner, and a white sheet hanging on the far side of the room — partitioning off the sleeping area, I assumed.  When the giant closed the door, the sheet billowed like a woman’s dress in the wind.  In the moment before it settled down I saw what lay behind it — not a bed, no furniture at all, just slabs of white meat hanging from hooks, suspended from a heating pipe by heavy chains, with a canvas drop cloth on the floor to collect the drippings.”  (page 59)

Lev and Kolya embark on a journey to find eggs — yes, that is a chicken in the far snowy distance on the cover — to save their own hides, a deal offered by a powerful Soviet colonel.  They mean cannibals, partisans, and of course Germans bent on killing them.  While there is darkness, mystery, and suspense, there also is a quaint feeling to the setting and the interactions between Lev and his new friend.  The absurdity of their situation is never lost on them, and it attempts to mirror the absurdity of war.  Despite the danger they find themselves in, they often joke and rag on one another as if they are playing baseball in the streets of Leningrad.

City of Thieves is a well written coming-of-age story at a time when the world was at war, but in spite of the danger, Lev and Kolya form an unbreakable bond.  It’s easy to see their tentative interactions blossom into true friendship, a bond that keeps them alive and watching each other’s backs throughout the novel.  While in the midst of German attacks, in the rural farmhouses appropriated by Germans as whorehouses, and even in a remote hunting cabin, the journey they are on is not only one in search of eggs, but in search of the faith and strength they need to survive.  Another for the best of list.

Here’s what Book Club thought (Caution may contain spoilers):

We actually had a rather long discussion about this book from the prologue and the interjection of the author in the prologue as the grandson of one of the main characters to what the eggs symbolized.  One of the members thought that the eggs symbolized the absurdity of war, while another thought it was the fragility of human life.  As for the prologue, most said that they had forgotten about it, while two others (including myself) thought it was the author’s ego leading him to place himself in the story.  Although it’s an interesting device, it also seems to make the story appear true when it is not — given that in interviews the author has said he was never able to ask his grandparents about their time in Germany during WWII before they died.  And the prologue is not the only instance of the author interjecting his family subtly into the novel — i.e. Lev Beniov is one of the main characters, a close last name to David Benioff.

There also was quite a lot of discussion about the “Courtyard of the Hound,” which was talked about as a great work of Russian literature by Kolya and whether it was a great work of literature, could be a great work of literature, or was merely a boring story about a shut in who finally leaves his apartment because of a dead dog.

Other elements we discussed is the lack of care with human life by the generals on both sides of the war — whether the Russian colonel sending Kolya and Lev on an absurd journey to find eggs when all Russians are starving or the callous way in which the Germans used Russian women as sexual play things.  One member also highlighted the seeming lack of outrage regarding the cannibals compared to the outrage displayed against the women who were being used as whores by the Germans and acquiesced so that they could survive — why was one form of survival better than another or at least more acceptable.  Another interesting point was made about the cinematic feel of the latter half of the book where there were dramatic scenes lumped together one after another from the dogs used to carry bombs under tanks to the German whorehouse and the showdown with the German elite assassins.  It seemed to be very packed in and gave the reader little time to breath or be deeply impacted by the events at hand, which I did notice that this half of the book read more like a screenplay (haphazard of the author’s screenwriting occupation perhaps?).

Also, please read Diary of an Eccentric‘s review.

About the Author:

David Benioff worked as a nightclub bouncer in San Francisco, a radio DJ in Wyoming and an English teacher/wrestling coach in Brooklyn before selling his first novel, The 25th Hour, in 2000.

He later wrote the screenplay for Spike Lee’s adaptation of Hour starring Edward Norton and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. In 2005, Viking Press published Benioff’s collection of short stories, When the Nines Roll Over.

Benioff’s screenwriting credits include Troy (2004), directed by Wolfgang Petersen, and Stay (2005), directed by Marc Forster, and The Kite Runner (2007). Jim Sheridan produced Benioff’s screenplay Brothers, and Hugh Jackman reprised his role as the clawed mutant in Benioff’s Wolverine. Viking published his most recent novel, City of Thieves, in May 2008.

Benioff is married to actress Amanda Peet; the couple has one daughter, Frances Pen. Also check out his interviews.  And another interview.

This is my 39th book for the 2012 New Authors Challenge.

  • I loved this book and thought it was so well-written! Great pick for your book club!

    • Anna picked it…bet you never would have guessed!

  • I really loved this book, the mix of humor and war, and I thought it made for a great discussion. I’ll be posting a wrap up of the book club meeting tomorrow, though you did a great job of summing it up already.

    • I can’t wait to read your wrap-up of the discussion. I almost forgot to add it to the review.

  • this has been sat languishing on my kindle, I will get round to reading it, as as soon as I can. thanks for the reminder.

    • I hope that you read it. It’s a real page turner, very hard to put down.

  • I have a feeling that your book club reads a little more literature than mine!

    • well for the moment; our next book is YA.

  • Ti

    Eggs, huh? I was interested in the eggs as soon as you mentioned them so I’m glad your book club addressed it. Although the story sounds like it bounces from serious to somewhat humorous at times, it does sound like a good discussion book.

    • We really had a great discussion; one of the best ones so far. I like the combination of humor and serious. I thought it worked well.

  • I loved this book when I read it last year. Great review!

    • I’m glad to see that others enjoyed this book as well.

  • So envious of your book club — the convo sounds marvelous. You and Anna have me hankering for this book!

    • You’ll have to read it and let us know how you liked it.

  • The book sounds like a must read and your book club sounds fantastic!

    • Thanks, Kathy. I really enjoyed this book and it was a good selection for the book club. Book Club is even better than I’d hoped it would be. Such a great, dynamic group.

  • I liked the way the pace of the book accelerated; it was like what I imagine war to be, speeding everything up until you have no time to make sense of anything.

    • I enjoyed this book and didn’t mind the cinematic pace at the end of the book. I was more bothered by the author’s intentionally misleading prologue.