I stumbled over City of Thieves when it came out and was early on the bandwagon. First to read and last to blog: a neat summation of how I run things around here. City of Thieves is simultaneously funny and sad, which is a hard balance to strike without becoming glib or irreverent. Much of the humor is dark, a little twisted, which is what you’d expect from a book set during a war.
To form an opinion of this book, you must read the first two chapters (at least). The first few pages are tired, because they’re the old: “Sit down, Sonny-boy. Gramps is gonna tell you ’bout the war,” (that’s sarcasm, not a quote). When you get to the story proper, you’ll forgive the clumsy framing device. At the outset, Lev Beniov is starving in Leningrad as the Germans bomb the city. One night, a dead German paratrooper lands near his apartment and he investigates the corpse with a few friends. He is arrested for looting and thrown in a cell with Kolya, a charismatic deserter, until the two of them get a reprieve. They are ordered by a colonel to find a dozen eggs for his daughter’s wedding cake:
“My men say there are no eggs in Leningrad, but I believe there is everything in Leningrad, even now, and I just need the right fellows to find it. A pair of thieves.” (35)
Note the page number of the above quote: 35. This book moves fast, but does not feel rushed. Situations and settings are quickly hashed out, but the characters are developed gradually through dialogue and well-placed details. For the first half of the novel, Lev and Kolya follow increasingly desperate leads to find their eggs, until settling in with a group of partisan fighters to play a longer strategy.
There are similar pairings of characters throughout literature, but Lev and Kolya are one of my favorite iterations of an old device. Lev is serious; he dreams of being heroic, but his courage has never been tested except in his own mind. Think of the kid from The Red Badge of Courage, but with a better arc. Lev turns down the easy, familial obligation (fleeing with his mother and sister) for the more patriotic obligation (defending his city).
I had no desire to tramp across the country with my mother and kid sister. I was seventeen, flooded with a belief in my own heroic destiny. 9
Kolya, by contrast, struts around with a calmness that baffles Lev. He can joke around with anyone, at any time, and seems alternately mature and naive.
[…] danger made him calm. Around him people would deal with their terror in the usual ways: stoicism, hysteria, false joviality, or some combination of the three. But Kolya, I think, never completely believed in any of it. Everything about the war was ridiculous: the Germans’ barbarity, the Party’s propaganda, the crossfire of incendiary bullets that lit the nighttime sky. It all seemed to him like someone else’s story, an amazingly detailed story that he had stumbled into and now could not escape. 51
He routinely gives Lev pep talks with questionable effectiveness:
“Listen to me. I know you’re afraid. You’re right to be afraid. Only an idiot would be calm sitting in a house knowing the Einsatzgruppen are coming. But this is what you’ve been waiting for. This is the night. They’re trying to burn down our city; they’re trying to starve us to death. But we’re like two of Piter’s bricks. You can’t burn a brick. You can’t starve a brick.”
I watched the candles gutter in the candelabrum, watched the shadows dance across the ceiling.
“Where’d you hear that?” I finally asked him.
“Which part, the bricks? My lieutenant. Why? You’re not inspired?”
“It was going along all right until then.”
“I like the bricks. ‘You can’t burn a brick. You can’t starve a brick.’ It’s nice. It has nice rhythm.”
“This is the same lieutenant who stepped on a land mine?” 135-36
At some point (the same point every time), I forget about the eggs when reading. There’s so much more to this novel than the surface quest for eggs. The conclusion brings the story together in a satisfying way without too much predictability. (Let’s face it: there’s only a few ways for a quest to end—either they will find the eggs, or they won’t—but the ending strikes a moving tone.)
Some of the Amazon reviews take off points for “vulgar” and “crude” language, but I don’t know that I’ve ever read a wartime novel that didn’t have a few F and C words. Full Disclosure: I have a dirty sense of humor, and it would be hypocritical for me to be offended by jokes so similar to my own. 😛 The language is standard for a wartime novel set in a starving city/countryside. Some events are shocking and disturbing, but they’re not disturbing because of the language.
Translation: Read it. Read it. Read it.