You don't have to be a lover of war literature or a fan of historical fiction to appreciate City of Thieves. Author and screenwriter David Benioff's second novel, set during the siege of Leningrad, crosses genre lines (even as his characters cross battle lines) to become a story with universal appeal.
Virginal 17-year-old protagonist Lev Beniov possesses a Woody Allen-esque charm—full of immaturity, precocious intelligence and desire for accomplishment. Having fallen into Russian military hands for breaking curfew and looting in his native Leningrad, Lev is deployed on an impossible quest in exchange for having his life spared, accompanied by a charmingly grandiose young soldier-turned-deserter, Kolya. His implacable sense of the absurd accompanies him throughout a forced sojourn into the frigid Russian countryside, where starvation and cruel Einsatzkommandos await.
Despite the obvious similarity of the Benioff-Beniov names, Benioff says City of Thieves is not his grandfather's life story. Yet the work offers not just verisimilitude but also truths: It carries the hallmarks of intensive research, including interviews with his grandfather, enabling depiction of the time period in detail. Cannibalism, casual bullets to the brain, dead soldiers serving as frozen signposts, dogs loaded with armaments in a futile attempt to thwart German tanks—Lev encounters these sights and more in a book that is, incredibly in the face of such details, fun. It is as riveting as the Odyssey, and, like Homer, Benioff is a master of rising and falling action. Just when the blood and snow and mayhem seem unendurable, Lev and Kolya stumble upon a warm house and a meal with Russian beauties held hostage, forced into pleasuring their German captors. Of course soul-searing horrors soon rear up as the girls recount how the Germans punished the 14-year-old who ran away.
With deft phrases like "the plane's burning carcass falling like an angel cast from heaven," Benioff puts the action in grand context. Lev says of his own people, the Russians, "we were the children of a thousand lost battles and defeat was heavy in us." And yet the tale holds many moments of humor, and heartbreak yields to hope.
Andrea Brunais is a writer living in Tampa, Florida, and Bluefield, West Virginia.
Read a virtual edition at Penguin's Reading Room.