City of Thieves by David Benioff is an unpretentious work of genius — the very best kind. Here is an enormously successful author and screen writer — 25th Hour, Wolverine whatever, and he dashes off a short novel about the siege of Leningrad, which he might have learned about from his grandfather, we’re not sure. But guess what? I don’t care!
This work is clearly the result of extensive research, but it’s dashed off blithely, in the spirit of great Russian literature. I have a theory that if you work too hard on a passage, it becomes harder to read, and if you knock if off without breaking a sweat, it’s easier on the reader, too. This book reads so easily, you might say it effervesces. I just couldn’t put it down.
Lev and Kolya, a looter and a deserter, who in the ordinary course of things would have been shot, are instead given the impossible task of finding a dozen eggs in the beseiged city of Leningrad. They are lured into an apartment and very nearly dismembered by cannibals, but manage to escape and find a military patrol. There’s a lot of that going around, the soldiers say, but what can you do? There are no police.
They venture behind the German lines and find some hardy partisans, and the story rolls on ineluctably to a suitably thrilling conclusion. Every scene is riveting. From the frozen refugee family on the railroad tracks with their buttocks hacked off to the frozen soldier who acts as a signpost.
At last Lev plays a game of chess with the nastiest Nazi of them all… Like I say, it’s dashed off blithely, but with complete success. In the face of all this death and suffering, how could anyone care about a single person’s life? And yet, at the end, when Kolya’s life is in the balance, the reader, at least this reader, is shouting, no! not him!
City of Thieves is one great read, and a very informative one for those who wish to understand the Russian people.
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