Screenwriter David Benioff’s splendid new novel, City of Thieves, opens as a screenwriter named David, curious about his grandparents’ experiences in Russia during World War II, visits the retired couple in Florida and records cassette after cassette of his grandfather’s tales. Finally, wearily, the old man ends the conversation. ”A couple of things still don’t make sense to me — ” Benioff persists.
”You’re a writer,” answers his grandfather. ”Make it up.”
And so, apparently, he has. Exactly how much of this novel is true, and how much imagined, matters not a whit. The surreal wartime journey of 17-year-old Lev Beniov unfolds like a crazy and vivid dream (and, at times, a nightmare), but it has the rich texture of lived experience.
The story opens in the winter of 1942 during the crushing Nazi siege of Leningrad. ”You have never been so hungry; you have never been so cold” are Lev’s first words to us. A nervous virgin with a gift for chess and a bashful crush on his cello-playing neighbor, Lev watches the corpse of a German parachutist float down from the sky, ”his silk canopy a white tulip bulb above him.” Lev drinks the dead man’s cognac, steals his knife, and is promptly nabbed by the police for looting.
Lev hasn’t yet learned how to make his way in the world. But while in jail, he meets the consummate operator: Kolya, a handsome, irrepressible, Zorba-like soldier who was arrested for going AWOL from his regiment. You can tell Benioff is a screenwriter, because Lev and Kolya are a comic odd couple from a long Hollywood tradition. You’re ”a bit moody, in the Jewish way, but I like you,” Kolya announces, and thereafter treats Lev as his soul mate. For Kolya, Lev feels a combination of envy, fascination, and suspicion. The colonel holding them prisoner offers them a deal: He’ll set them free if they can track down a dozen eggs for his daughter’s wedding cake.
This ragtag pair hits the road, telling each other ribald stories, bantering about literature, and getting on each other’s nerves. In ravaged Leningrad, they discover willing young women and charnel-house horrors, but no eggs. They venture out of the city and into the frozen countryside, where they spend the night with a cabin full of courtesans, briefly join a band of partisans, and are captured by the German army. Guns are fired, throats slashed, a love affair launched, and eventually, at a staggering price, eggs acquired. By listening carefully — and making the rest up — Benioff has produced a funny, sad, and thrilling novel. A-