Monday, March 4, 2013

City of Thieves


Just when I thought the Second World War had been strip mined for every conceivable movie idea, video game concept and tear-stained memoir, along comes David Benioff and proves me wrong. As a husband and father, being proven wrong is not new territory for me, but never before has it given me so much joy.

As any armchair WWII enthusiast will tell you, the siege of Leningrad in the winter of 1944 was not synonymous with "joy ". The Russian army was woefully outnumbered and cut off from vital supply lines and the civilian population that did not evacuate was slowly starving and freezing to death. The German propaganda machine, dubbed it the city of thieves in its ongoing attempt to demonize Communism and paint themselves as liberators of the Russian common man.

Amid all of this grinding human tragedy we meet Lev Beniov, a seventeen-year-old scrappy Jewish survivor and Kolya, a  lover of literature, an experienced fighter and a deserter from the Russian army. Brought together by a series of unlikely events, they are forced  to perform a fools errand: Find one dozen eggs so the daughter of a powerful Russian colonel can have a wedding cake or face terrible punishment for their transgressions. The back and forth banter between these two unlikely allies is clever, funny and very genuine. It brought to mind the kind of macho juvenile conversation my friends and I shared when we were young men.

The pacing is perfect, with each short chapter describing a cold, famished step into a dark wonderland. Humor is here in equal measure, seemingly out of place until you realize that weak tea, stale bread and bad jokes are all these poor souls have left.

So skip a couple meals, turn down the heat, pour yourself a little vodka and dive into this funny, haunting tale. It stands as a fine example of good old fashioned yarn-spinning without all the pretentious accoutrements that are usually hung around the neck of modern war stories these days.