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Living by Their Wits

By Thomas Meaney,
who also reviews for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Observer
Thursday, July 10, 2008

CITY OF THIEVES

By David Benioff

Viking. 258 pp. $24.95

The 900-day German siege of Leningrad (1941-43) was arguably the most punishing sustained assault on a city in history. The Russians lost roughly one civilian per minute for 2 ½ years straight. Yet despite their dwindling supplies, their strategic stubbornness and their policy of purging some of their most loyal comrades, the Red Army held firm. "The arithmetic was brutal, but brutal arithmetic always worked in Russia's favor," reflects Lev, the prematurely hardened 17-year-old hero of David Benioff's second novel, "City of Thieves."

Benioff's book opens inauspiciously: A Los Angeles screenwriter is in need of material for an autobiographical think piece. Bored by his personal history, he decides to tap into his family's during a visit to Florida, where he interviews his grandparents about their experiences on the Eastern Front. The grandfather, Lev Beniov, typically a man of few words, fills a week's worth of tape. What follows purports to be his story, though when it comes to gaps and inconsistencies, Lev grants his grandson carte blanche. "You're a writer. Make it up," he exhorts.

In the hands of another author, this would be an invitation to recklessness. Novels set in Soviet Russia have lately had a tendency to ballast their black comedy with zany narrative high jinks or social commentary pitched toward the present. Witness last year's "House of Meetings" by Martin Amis, which featured another Lev and confused the horrors of the Gulag with the comparably picayune problems of the bedroom. Benioff intends something more modest but ultimately more moving. "City of Thieves" is a coming-of-age story brilliantly amplified by its war-torn backdrop.

When we first meet Lev, he has nothing but strikes against him. The son of a minor Jewish poet, he's already considered an enemy of the people before he's sent to Leningrad's prison for looting a dead German paratrooper. There he shares a cell with Kolya, a chronically constipated local Lothario, who claims to have been unjustly charged with desertion after he left his regiment to defend his dissertation on an obscure Russian novelist. Instead of immediate execution, a Red Army colonel offers the cellmates a chance at redemption: They must find a dozen eggs somewhere in the city to use for his daughter's wedding cake. It's an order that makes the missions in "The Dirty Dozen" and "Saving Private Ryan" seem eminently reasonable, but this, after all, is Mother Russia.

Kolya and Lev face a series of hair-raising terrors as they traipse around the freezing city. "Just because there's bad news doesn't mean there's good news, too," Kolya chides, and that might as well be their motto. The two fast friends encounter urban cannibals, snacks made from bookbinding glue, dogs strapped with dynamite to blow up Panzer tanks and, most hauntingly, a makeshift brothel on the outskirts of the city, where one of the girls has had her feet sawed off by a sadistic Nazi commander. "Everything about the war was ridiculous," Lev thinks: "the Germans' barbarity, the Party's propaganda, the crossfire of incendiary bullets that lit the nighttime sky."

Stealing the show in the novel, Kolya keeps Lev distracted with his hilarious mini-lectures on history ("All the Frenchmen with [guts] died on the way home from Moscow in 1812"); literature ("Oblomov is a morality lesson . . . a little trifle you make your kids read so they don't grow up lazy"); and sex ("The secret to winning a woman is calculated neglect") along with periodic updates on the state of his bowels. If the conversations seem to stray far from what's going on around them, that's the point: "You couldn't let too much truth seep into your conversation, you couldn't admit with your mouth what your eyes had seen."

The plot jolts into high gear when Lev and Kolya agree to avenge the Russian girl and ambush the German officers in the brothel. The same night they unexpectedly fall in with a motley crew of Russian partisans, who have been tracking Cmdr. Abendroth, the head of the Nazi death squads. Soon the nervously virginal Lev is receiving tactical advice from Kolya on the crush he's developed for Nina, a tomboy sharpshooter in their ranks. Everything for Lev -- his budding romance, his friendship, his eggs -- will boil down to a chess game between him and Abendroth, whom Benioff depicts as the dual apotheosis of Nazi sophistication and inhumanity.

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.

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