City of Thieves

David Benioff has made a specialty out of crafting characters who achieve some measure of success -- fame, fortune, athletic prowess, or beauty -- but who simultaneously see through it. They are haunted by the compromises they?ve made to get to the top. A screenwriter, Benioff is best known in the literary world for his 2000 novel, The 25th Hour (later filmed by Spike Lee, with Benioff's script). That book featured a handsome New York city drug dealer named Montgomery Brogan -- a working-class boy forced to appear tougher than he felt -- who was whiling away his last hours as a free man before heading off to a notoriously brutal upstate prison. Monty was an antihero, but Benioff made the reader root for him as a self-aware cog in a flawed universe.

Similarly, in the short stories of When the Nines Roll Over, Benioff presented characters such as Tabachnik, a brilliant A&R man ambivalent about selling out his artists, and June, a prosaic waitress who knows getting her big break as an actress means leaving her pure-hearted boyfriend. Benioff?s characters were smart but not happy, because their intelligence forced them to scorn easy consolations.

The characters in City of Thieves, set during the 1941 siege of Leningrad, are something different. They are idealists in spite of their own misgivings about the world; idealists in spite of their pronounced suffering. Benioff makes his hero a true underdog -- a bright but gawky 17-year-old named Lev who is a self-described "runt from birth." Lev has a big nose, "skin scribbled with acne," and "the pessimism of both the Russians and the Jews, two of the gloomiest tribes in the world." Lev is skeptical without being jaded. This is not because he hasn?t had enough experience -- though he is a shy virgin, Benioff makes clear that Lev has seen and heard more by the age of 17 than most people will in a lifetime, including the "disappearance" of his father from the literary magazine where he worked -- but because disillusionment would require reaching a level of comfort impossible in a war-starved city, where the focus must be on daily acts of survival.

Benioff brings this sense of destitution to vivid life, depicting the autumn wind that blows only the shutter hinges of buildings, since the shutters themselves have been torn down for firewood. "Every wood sign, the slats of the park benches, the floorboards of shattered buildings -- all gone and burning in someone?s stove." The rationed bread is so hard that people break their teeth trying to chew it. In a black market area where general?s wives and party members once traded their jewelry and silverware for food (" 'So eat your silverware,' " the peasants say, if anyone objects to the price), men are now selling glasses of dirt. "Badayev Mud," it?s called, "taken from the ground under the bombed food warehouses and packed with melted sugar." Another vendor sells "library candy, made from tearing the covers off of books, peeling off the binding glue, boiling it down, and reforming it into bars you could wrap in paper."

Lev chooses to remain in Piter (the name "every native used, but banned from all Soviet text because ?Saint Petersburg? was a czar?s arrogance") when his mother and sister are evacuated, shortly before the Germans encircle the city. He does so out of an adolescent?s desire for adventure, "flooded with a belief in my own heroic destiny." Volunteering as a firefighter on the roof of his building at night, he mans water buckets, sand, iron tongs, and shovels while he and other residents search the sky for bombs. When Lev abandons his post to loot a German paratrooper?s body for food, breaking a strict curfew, he is arrested and placed in a prison cell with a man named Kolya, a beautiful Cossack with high cheekbones and hay-blond hair, eyes "blue enough to please any Aryan." Kolya is a smooth-talking swindler accused of deserting his Red Army unit. His life, like Lev?s, is temporarily spared only because a ruthless NKVD colonel needs help with a particular task: finding a dozen eggs, within the next five days, to make the cake for his daughter?s wedding. "My men say there are no eggs in Leningrad," the iron-faced colonel informs Lev and Kolya, "but I believe there is everything in Leningrad, even now. I just need the right fellows to find it. A pair of thieves."

* * *

It is a truism of the adventure story or quest narrative that the object to be attained (the Holy Grail, the hidden treasure, the power-giving rings) is of less importance than the journey itself, which forges the hero?s character. In City of Thieves, the quest for a dozen eggs takes Lev and Kolya behind German lines in the devastated countryside, brings them into contact with dangerous partisans and ravenous cannibals, leads to their capture and the murder of several high-ranking Nazis -- but the eggs serve primarily as a means to the book?s larger end, which is showing how a friendship forms between the insecure Lev and the wily Kolya. Their odd-couple banter, which consists primarily of Kolya?s boasting of his sexual conquests and Lev?s doubtful rejoinders, does not contain a single false note. As befits an accomplished screenwriter, Benioff moves the plot along with a suspenseful celerity. His prose is scrupulously, almost unnervingly excised of inessential detail -- the starkness of Hemingway crossed with the authenticity of Richard Price.

There are times when this world feels too seamlessly rendered, the loose ends tied up too neatly when what one wants is some enduring mystery, the ambiguity associated with more complex literature. But the novel Benioff has written is one where characters poke holes in the notion of artistic greatness, and rightly so. One of its best scenes occurs when Kolya and Lev hear a pianist playing in a dark house, on a deserted Leningrad street. There are shells falling off in the distance and the music is strange and unfathomable. It is a song that Lev, who knows all of Mahler and can "identify any of Chopin?s twenty-seven etudes after hearing a few bars," has never heard. "It was music for wartime," he thinks, and "when it ended, something seemed wrong: the performance was too good to go unacknowledged, the performer too skilled to accept no applause. For a long moment we were silent, staring up at the dark windows." Lev believes it could be Shostakovich himself, but Kolya spits on the sidewalk at the thought.

"They evacuated Shostakovich three months ago," he says. The ordinary people -- the ones who have yet to distinguish themselves -- are all that remain, and they must fend for themselves.

July 23: Jessica Mitford died on this day in 1996.

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