David Benioff has made a specialty out of crafting characters who achieve some measure of success -- fame, fortune, athletic prowess, or beauty -- but who simultaneously see through it. They are haunted by the compromises they’ve made to get to the top. A screenwriter, Benioff is best known in the literary world for his 2000 novel, The 25th Hour (later filmed by Spike Lee, with Benioff's script). That book featured a handsome New York city drug dealer named Montgomery Brogan -- a working-class boy forced to appear tougher than he felt -- who was whiling away his last hours as a free man before heading off to a notoriously brutal upstate prison. Monty was an antihero, but Benioff made the reader root for him as a self-aware cog in a flawed universe.
Similarly, in the short stories of When the Nines Roll Over, Benioff presented characters such as Tabachnik, a brilliant A&R man ambivalent about selling out his artists, and June, a prosaic waitress who knows getting her big break as an actress means leaving her pure-hearted boyfriend. Benioff’s characters were smart but not happy, because their intelligence forced them to scorn easy consolations.
The characters in City of Thieves, set during the 1941 siege of Leningrad, are something different. They are idealists in spite of their own misgivings about the world; idealists in spite of their pronounced suffering. Benioff makes his hero a true underdog -- a bright but gawky 17-year-old named Lev who is a self-described "runt from birth." Lev has a big nose, "skin scribbled with acne," and "the pessimism of both the Russians and the Jews, two of the gloomiest tribes in the world." Lev is skeptical without being jaded. This is not because he hasn’t had enough experience -- though he is a shy virgin, Benioff makes clear that Lev has seen and heard more by the age of 17 than most people will in a lifetime, including the "disappearance" of his father from the literary magazine where he worked -- but because disillusionment would require reaching a level of comfort impossible in a war-starved city, where the focus must be on daily acts of survival.
Benioff brings this sense of destitution to vivid life, depicting the autumn wind that blows only the shutter hinges of buildings, since the shutters themselves have been torn down for firewood. "Every wood sign, the slats of the park benches, the floorboards of shattered buildings -- all gone and burning in someone’s stove." The rationed bread is so hard that people break their teeth trying to chew it. In a black market area where general’s wives and party members once traded their jewelry and silverware for food (" 'So eat your silverware,' " the peasants say, if anyone objects to the price), men are now selling glasses of dirt. "Badayev Mud," it’s called, "taken from the ground under the bombed food warehouses and packed with melted sugar." Another vendor sells "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."
Lev chooses to remain in Piter (the name "every native used, but banned from all Soviet text because ‘Saint Petersburg’ was a czar’s arrogance") when his mother and sister are evacuated, shortly before the Germans encircle the city. He does so out of an adolescent’s desire for adventure, "flooded with a belief in my own heroic destiny." Volunteering as a firefighter on the roof of his building at night, he mans water buckets, sand, iron tongs, and shovels while he and other residents search the sky for bombs. When Lev abandons his post to loot a German paratrooper’s body for food, breaking a strict curfew, he is arrested and placed in a prison cell with a man named Kolya, a beautiful Cossack with high cheekbones and hay-blond hair, eyes "blue enough to please any Aryan." Kolya is a smooth-talking swindler accused of deserting his Red Army unit. His life, like Lev’s, is temporarily spared only because a ruthless NKVD colonel needs help with a particular task: finding a dozen eggs, within the next five days, to make the cake for his daughter’s wedding. "My men say there are no eggs in Leningrad," the iron-faced colonel informs Lev and Kolya, "but I believe there is everything in Leningrad, even now. I just need the right fellows to find it. A pair of thieves."
It is a truism of the adventure story or quest narrative that the object to be attained (the Holy Grail, the hidden treasure, the power-giving rings) is of less importance than the journey itself, which forges the hero’s character. In City of Thieves, the quest for a dozen eggs takes Lev and Kolya behind German lines in the devastated countryside, brings them into contact with dangerous partisans and ravenous cannibals, leads to their capture and the murder of several high-ranking Nazis -- but the eggs serve primarily as a means to the book’s larger end, which is showing how a friendship forms between the insecure Lev and the wily Kolya. Their odd-couple banter, which consists primarily of Kolya’s boasting of his sexual conquests and Lev’s doubtful rejoinders, does not contain a single false note. As befits an accomplished screenwriter, Benioff moves the plot along with a suspenseful celerity. His prose is scrupulously, almost unnervingly excised of inessential detail -- the starkness of Hemingway crossed with the authenticity of Richard Price.
There are times when this world feels too seamlessly rendered, the loose ends tied up too neatly when what one wants is some enduring mystery, the ambiguity associated with more complex literature. But the novel Benioff has written is one where characters poke holes in the notion of artistic greatness, and rightly so. One of its best scenes occurs when Kolya and Lev hear a pianist playing in a dark house, on a deserted Leningrad street. There are shells falling off in the distance and the music is strange and unfathomable. It is a song that Lev, who knows all of Mahler and can "identify any of Chopin’s twenty-seven etudes after hearing a few bars," has never heard. "It was music for wartime," he thinks, and "when it ended, something seemed wrong: the performance was too good to go unacknowledged, the performer too skilled to accept no applause. For a long moment we were silent, staring up at the dark windows." Lev believes it could be Shostakovich himself, but Kolya spits on the sidewalk at the thought.
"They evacuated Shostakovich three months ago," he says. The ordinary people -- the ones who have yet to distinguish themselves -- are all that remain, and they must fend for themselves. --Andrea Walker
Andrea Walker is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker. Her reviews have appeared in Bookforum, The Hartford Courant, and the Times Literary Supplement.
City of Thieves is a coming-of-age story brilliantly amplified by its war-torn backdrop…At times Lev and Kolya seem too free from the strictures of Soviet ideology: They each come equipped with an improbably deep understanding of their society. But for the most part, they and the minor characters satisfyingly inhabit the historical wreckage, and Kolya and Abendroth are especially memorable. But Benioff's finest achievement in City of Thieves has been to banish all possible pretensions from his novel, which never wears its research on its sleeve, and to deliver a rough-and-tumble tale that clenches humor, savagery and pathos squarely together on the same page.
The Washington Post
Author and screenwriter Benioff follows up The 25th Hourwith this hard-to-put-down novel based on his grandfather's stories about surviving WWII in Russia. Having elected to stay in Leningrad during the siege, 17-year-old Lev Beniov is caught looting a German paratrooper's corpse. The penalty for this infraction (and many others) is execution. But when Colonel Grechko confronts Lev and Kolya, a Russian army deserter also facing execution, he spares them on the condition that they acquire a dozen eggs for the colonel's daughter's wedding cake. Their mission exposes them to the most ghoulish acts of the starved populace and takes them behind enemy lines to the Russian countryside. There, Lev and Kolya take on an even more daring objective: to kill the commander of the local occupying German forces. A wry and sympathetic observer of the devastation around him, Lev is an engaging and self-deprecating narrator who finds unexpected reserves of courage at the crucial moment and forms an unlikely friendship with Kolya, a flamboyant ladies' man who is coolly reckless in the face of danger. Benioff blends tense adventure, a bittersweet coming-of-age and an oddly touching buddy narrative to craft a smart crowd-pleaser. (May)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Looking for the feel-good World War II book of the year? This tale of two miscreants in Soviet Leningrad might be the one, as Lev and Kolya bumble their way toward locating a dozen eggs for a stern Soviet colonel who needs them for his daughter's wedding cakes. The city is at the gates of starvation (achingly portrayed in realistic detail), so the boys set out into the enemy-occupied countryside. Delivering the eggs will release them from their death sentences, as Lev was caught looting the body of a downed German paratrooper and Kolya deserted his unit to visit girlfriends. Coming upon partisan cadres and Germans, they find little success in their perilous saga. With deftly sly humor, respect for the agony of warfare, and dialog that elevates the boys-to-men story beyond its typical male ribaldry, this second novel (after The 25th Hour) by screenwriter Benioff (The Kite Runner) deserves a bright spotlight in most libraries to attract readers young and old to its compelling pages.
Novelist and screenwriter Benioff's glorious second novel (The 25th Hour, 2000) is a wild action-packed quest, and much else besides: a coming-of-age story, an odd-couple tale and a juicy footnote to the historic World War II siege of Leningrad. It's New Year's Eve, 1941, and Lev Beniov is alone in Leningrad. (Note that last name: This novel was sparked by tape-recorded memories of author Benioff's grandfather.) The 17-year-old's mother and sister were evacuated before the siege began in September; his father, a respected poet, was "removed" by the NKVD in 1937. Lev's real troubles begin when a German paratrooper, frozen to death, lands on his street. Lev deserts his firefighter's post, steals the German's knife, is arrested by soldiers and jailed. His cellmate is 20-year-old Kolya, a boastful Cossack deserter, dazzlingly handsome in contrast to scrawny Lev, who hates his telltale big nose (he's half-Jewish); their initial hostility turns into the closest of bonds. Sparing their lives, for now, NKVD Colonel Grechko gives them a near-impossible assignment in this starving city: five days to find a dozen eggs for his daughter's wedding cake. There's nothing doing on the black market. Then Kolya hears of a poultry collective . . . behind German lines. That's where they must go, decides Kolya, and Benioff makes his boundless self-confidence entirely credible. Over half the novel happens in enemy territory. Lev and Kolya stumble on a farmhouse where four pretty Russian girls are being kept as sex slaves by a Nazi death squad. (The connection between sex and death is a major theme.) The slave-owners are killed by Russian partisans, one of whom is the deadly sniper Vika, a young tomboy whosteals Lev's heart. Despite a "parade of atrocities," the pace will keep your adrenaline pumping right up to the climactic chess game between Lev and a fiendish Nazi officer. This gut-churning thriller will sweep you along and, with any luck, propel Benioff into bestseller land. Agent: Tracy Fisher and Raffaella De Angelis/William Morris
Read an Excerpt
You have never been so hungry; you have never been so cold. When we slept, if we slept, we dreamed of the feasts we had carelessly eaten seven months earlier—all that buttered bread, the potato dumplings, the sausages—eaten with disregard, swallowing without tasting, leaving great crumbs on our plates, scraps of fat. In June of 1941, before the Germans came, we thought we were poor. But June seemed like paradise by winter.
At night the wind blew so loud and long it startled you when it stopped; the shutter hinges of the burnt-out café on the corner would quit creaking for a few ominous seconds, as if a predator neared and the smaller animals hushed in terror. The shutters themselves had been torn down for firewood in November. There was no more scrap wood in Leningrad. Every wood sign, the slats of the park benches, the floorboards of shattered buildings—all gone and burning in someone's stove. The pigeons were missing, too, caught and stewed in melted ice from the Neva. No one minded slaughtering pigeons. It was the dogs and cats that caused trouble. You would hear a rumor in October that someone had roasted the family mutt and split it four ways for supper; we'd laugh and shake our heads, not believing it, and also wondering if dog tasted good with enough salt— there was still plenty of salt, even when everything else ran out we had salt. By January the rumors had become plain fact. No one but the best connected could still feed a pet, so the pets fed us.
There were two theories on the fat versus the thin. Some said those who were fat before the war stood a better chance of survival: a week without food would not transform a plump man into a skeleton. Others said skinny people were more accustomed to eating little and could better handle the shock of starvation. I stood in the latter camp, purely out of self-interest. I was a runt from birth. Big-nosed, black-haired, skin scribbled with acne—let's admit I was no girl's idea of a catch. But war made me more attractive. Others dwindled as the ration cards were cut and cut again, halving those who looked like circus strongmen before the invasion. I had no muscle to lose. Like the shrews that kept scavenging while the dinosaurs toppled around them, I was built for deprivation.
So I was too young for the army but old enough to dig anti-tank ditches by day and guard the roofs by night. Manning my crew were my friends from the 5th floor, Vera Osipovna, a talented cellist, and the redheaded Antokolsky twins, whose only known talent was an ability to fart in harmony. In the early days of the war we had smoked cigarettes on the roof, posing as soldiers, brave and strong and square-chinned, scanning the skies for the enemy. By the end of December there were no cigarettes in Leningrad, at least none made with tobacco. A few desperate souls crushed fallen leaves, rolled them in paper and called them Autumn Lights, claiming the right leaves provided a decent smoke, but in the Kirov, far from the nearest standing tree, this was never an option. We spent our spare minutes 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.
We had a little radio on the roof with us. On New Year's Eve we listened to the Spassky chimes in Moscow playing the Internationale. Vera had found half an onion somewhere; she cut it into four pieces on a plate smeared with sunflower oil. When the onion was gone we mopped up the remaining oil with our ration bread. Ration bread did not taste like bread. It did not taste like food. After the Germans bombed the Badayev grain warehouses, the city bakeries got creative. Everything that could be added to the recipe without poisoning people was added to the recipe. The entire city was starving, no one had enough to eat, and still, everyone cursed the bread, the sawdust flavor, how hard it got in the cold. People broke their teeth trying to chew it. Even today, even when I've forgotten the faces of people I loved, I can still remember the taste of that bread.
Half an onion and a 125-gram loaf of bread split four ways—this was a decent meal. We lay on our backs, wrapped in blankets, watching the air raid blimps on their long tethers drifting in the wind, listening to the radio's metronome. When there was no music to play or news to report, the radio station transmitted the sound of a metronome, that endless tick-tick-tick letting us know the city was still unconquered, the Fascists still outside the gate. The broadcast metronome was Piter's beating heart, and the Germans never stilled it.
It was Vera who spotted the man falling from the sky. She shouted and pointed and we all stood to get a better look. One of the searchlights shone on a parachutist descending towards the city, his silk canopy a white tulip bulb above him.
“A Fritz,” said Oleg Antokolsky, and he was right, we could see the grey Luftwaffe uniform. Where had he come from? None of us had heard the sounds of aerial combat or the report of an AA gun. We hadn't heard a bomber passing overhead for close to an hour.
“Maybe it's started,” said Vera. For weeks we'd been hearing rumors that the Germans were preparing a massive paratrooper drop, a final raid to pluck the miserable thorn of Leningrad from their advancing army's backside. At any minute we expected to look up and see thousands of Nazis drifting toward the city, a snowstorm of white parachutes blotting out the sky, but dozens of searchlights slashed through the darkness and found no more enemies. There was only this one, and judging from the limpness of the body suspended from the parachute harness, he was already dead.