I went from the pure escapism of Son of Tarzan to one of the grittiest, intense novels I’ve ever read, in City of Thieves by David Benioff. The protagonist, Lev, is a teenage watchman in his apartment building in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) during the German siege in the winter of 1941-1942. Benioff paints a devastating portrait of the cold and deprivation under the siege.
“At night the wind blew so loud and long it startled you when it stopped; the shutter hinges of the burned out cafe on the corner would quit creaking for a few ominous seconds, as if a predator neared and the smaller animals hushed in terror.” [p 7]
There were no wooden shutters in the hinges since they had long since been used as firewood. By the time of the story everything was gone from the city.
“We spent our spare time hunting rats, who must have thought the disappearance of the city’s cats was the answer to all their ancient prayers, until they realized there was nothing left to eat in the garbage.” [p 10]
And then one night he and his friends spotted a German aviator parachuting into the city. At first, they thought the impending attack had begun. But actually it was just a lone pilot who had ejected during a bombing run. The friends rushed down to investigate and grabbed some of the dead man’s belongings including a knife and a flask of Cognac, his wallet, watch, and a knife – which Lev kept. Having these items was a state crime – stealing from the people. The group and the corpse were soon discovered by Russian soldiers on patrol; all got away except Lev whom the soldiers decided “was a good one for the Colonel.” [p 16] . He was thrown in a dark prison cell and was sure he’d be executed in the morning.
Lev was terrified
“…contrary to popular belief, the experience of terror does not make you braver. Perhaps, though, it is easier to hide your fear when you’re afraid all the time.” [p 18]
At some point he is joined in the dark cell by a Russian army deserter Kolya. In the morning the two were brought before the colonel in charge of defending the city. He did not have them executed, but he did take their ration cards and gave them a chance – return in a few days time with a dozen eggs for the colonel’s daughter’s wedding. Without ration cards, they’d die of starvation so they had to do something.
Kolya is a good counterbalance to the taciturn Lev.
“Kolya’s blue eyes, neither fear nor anger nor excitement about the prospect of a fight—nothing. This, I came to learn, was his gift: danger made him calm.” [p 50]
This attribute would come in handy over the next few days. The rest of the novel follows this mismatched pair on their scavenger hunt. The things they see and hear about are horrifying. The deprivation and degradation of the “Piter” residents, the countryside, and the Germans is appalling. After a day and night in the city they decide they have to go out to the countryside behind enemy lines to find the eggs. This novel is compelling and is a book I almost couldn’t put down. But I’d have to put it down for a few hours just to process what I had read.
“The days had become a confusion of catastrophes; what seemed impossible in the afternoon was blunt fact by the evening. German corpses fell from the sky; … [summary of events edited so as to not spoil the plot]…I had no food in my belly, no fat on my bones, and no energy to reflect on this parade of atrocities. I just kept moving, hoping to find another half slice of bread for myself and a dozen eggs for the colonel’s daughter.” [p 212”]
Benioff bases much of his work on “Harrison Salisbury’s masterpiece, The 900 Days [which] remains the best English-language book on the siege of Leningrad.” [p 259] He was also the head writer of the Game of Thrones TV adaptation (which I never watched or read) and wrote the screenplay of The Kite Runner. Perhaps that experience and approach is why this novel is so fast paced.
I highly recommend novel, but steel yourself.