By David Benioff
Statistics of the Leningrad siege (632,000 dead in the 900 days, 4,000 starved in a single day) should make irredeemably grim reading. From this sombre history, however, David Benioff spins one of the year’s most captivating yarns, a swashbuckler illuminated by love among the lawlessness, by chicken soup and cut-throat chess.
The story turns on Lev, a doomed young prisoner, and the dozen eggs that could save his life if unearthed in a city bereft of all things feathered, furred or otherwise fit for the pot. Puny of frame but large of nose, the teenage son of a murdered Jewish poet, Lev is a bookishly improbable hero.
Yet we know from the start that this “runt from birth” will survive snow, starvation, a cannibal encounter and a hair-raising endgame with a notorious Nazi. We know it, because Benioff, in narrator guise, has us hooked from the moment he flies off to Florida, hungry for the truth behind the family folktale of how his retired, insurance-selling grandfather (named Lev) really came to lose his left index finger and kill two Germans before his 18th birthday.
Cut to Leningrad 1942, the “city of thieves and maggots” Hitler was so confident of conquering that he’d issued invitations to a victory party. Lev’s unplanned crime — the looting of a dead German paratrooper who fell to earth, “the great canopy of his white parachute still swollen in the wind” — has precipitated a night in the cells and a friendship with presumed deserter Kolya, whose way with words and women creates danger and opportunity at every turn. Kolya’s gift of the gab wins the pair a four-day stay of execution, as the prison Colonel deploys them to seek the missing ingredients for his daughter’s wedding cake. And so their picaresque odyssey begins.
Pause for breath at this point (or anywhere) in the tale, and spot the workings-in-the-margin of a master storyteller. For Benioff’s book borrows the elements of all the best myths and fables: there is a seemingly impossible quest and a hostile landscape (even the Brothers Grimm couldn’t conjure up Benioff’s tableau of the dead, the frozen, the carved corpses hanging from Bluebeardian hooks). There are not exactly maidens in distress, but a gaggle of Russian girls forced to pleasure Nazi captors. There is Vika, a tiny redhead partisan in boy’s disguise (shades of Shakespeare’s Viola) and there are hunger-crazed, explosive-packed dogs (shades of Cerberus, hound of Hades).
But Benioff’s inventiveness carries you along with no pause for breath. He has honed his gift for history in Hollywood screenplays for Troy and The Kite Runner, two very different tales of war in which a hauntingly intimate tale unfolds against the grand sweep of events. City of Thieves similarly counters graphic horrors with the momentarily sublime. Vika may smell of wet dog in oversized fighting coveralls, but her glimpsed collarbone portends great tenderness in times to come. Eggs may betoken a scramble for survival, or a golden gift, the symbol of new life.
When an oil-smeared onion scrap was Russian manna, there was no rule for who would live and who would die. It’s a tribute to Benioff’s storytelling that I cared so much who did. And that, for page-turning hours, I genuinely believed his grandfather was a knife-fighter missing two knuckles. Alas, it is part of the fiction — but all the more a testament of towering imagination.
Madeleine Kingsley is a freelance reviewer