One of the drawbacks an English major faces is that you often find yourself over-analyzing and picking apart casual reads. This was the dilemma I faced this past summer when a friend recommended that I borrow his copy of David Benioff's City of Thieves . The novel, set during the calamitous siege of Leningrad, was exactly what I needed — an engrossing, unexpectedly invigorating tale with equal parts buddy story, coming-of-age tale, romance, and war drama.
City of Thieves finds its two protagonists, Lev and Kolya, facing a seemingly petty, though perilous, task: recover a dozen eggs for a local Colonel, a mission rendered near impossible in the indigent city. Lev, caught looting, is a 17-year old Jew insecure about his masculinity, ethnicity, and virginity. Kolya, meanwhile, is a charming braggadocio and womanizing soldier accused of desertion. Their unusual mission is an alternative to certain execution. Needless to say, Lev and Kolya run into a few difficulties along the way. They are assaulted by a husband-and-wife team of cannibals, reluctantly join up with trigger-happy partisans, and eventually are captured by invading Nazi Einsatz led by the monstrous Abendroth. Ultimately, the narrative calls on Lev to rise unexpectedly to the occasion in a riveting and affecting conclusion.
Despite the heavy historical context, Benioff is not concerned with a moralistic or political agenda. City of Thieves is consciously and richly fictive; the story adroitly weaves between genres and sensibilities. Amid the grave danger of his mission, Lev still finds time to fall for a lovely redhead named Vika — who happens to be a deadly sniper. His inept attempts to impress her with his masculinity — "I hoped that was vague enough to leave open the possibility that I had killed the paratrooper" — resonate with any reader who ever attended middle school. Benioff inflects their journey with the perfect amount of humor to avoid becoming overly grim or lugubrious. The accidental partnership of Lev and Kolya is frequently funny, from Lev's self-deprecation to Kolya's promiscuity and penchant for the profane.
Above all, the novel is about crafting an endearing and unlikely friendship. To this effect, Benioff finds unalloyed success. Kolya takes on a fraternal role to his brooding partner, rescuing him from the dangers that lie ahead while mentoring him in the problematic art of women. "I'm not an expert at everything. Just girls, literature, and chess," Kolya modestly proclaims to his junior accomplice. Their constant bantering with one another — "You're surly again because I slept with Sonya? Are you in love with her? Did you have a nice time with what's his name? You looked so cute curled up together by the stove" — subtly gives way to a brotherly bond.
Benioff gradually peels back their personas to make his characters more vulnerable and appealing. Beneath Kolya's boasting and quixotic demeanor is a young man sensitive about his literary ambitions and desperately wanting to be liked by everyone. Meanwhile, Lev struggles to prove his manhood while containing his father — a prominent poet who "disappeared" — from Kolya. Their relationship, like the novel itself, caters to a wealth of emotions that keeps it fresh and eminently enjoyable.
Some reviews of City of Thieves have likened the book to a statement on the ambiguities of human nature and the formality of fiction or have extolled Benioff for his wintry, lucid prose. I personally found it rewarding for a much more simple reason. Benioff knows how to tell a great story capable of shaking the most pretentious reader out of his slumber.