21 January 2010

The Blackest Stain on History or Last Laugh Blues

#6 - City of Thieves by David Benioff

The novel takes place during the Nazis' siege of Leningrad during WWII. The two main characters, Lev and Kolya, are arrested (for different reasons) one night and in order to avoid execution for their wrongdoings, they must find a dozen eggs for a Russian general's daughter's wedding cake. A dozen eggs, easy peasy, right? Not quite. This is Russia during WWII. People live off scraps of whatever they can find. They eat candy made out of melted wax. Finding a dozen eggs will be no easy feat.

Despite the story being relatively simple - two guys need to find a dozen eggs in exchange for their lives, the novel is multi-layered. The story told is from the perspective of a writer's grandfather, after the writer has been asked to write an autobiographical account of his life. Instead of his own life, he chooses to focus on his grandfather because of the tales he heard of his grandfather's younger days. These are "tales" because he never heard them firsthand from his grandfather. The grandfather is, of course, Lev. His story is a hard one to tell, but he does it for his grandson. My dad was born in Germany, just a few years after WWII ended, and I don't think he (or I) will never know the whole story to his parents' experiences during the war. It's just not one of those things that becomes easy to talk about, no matter how many years have passed. So in that respect, I definitely appreciate that short portion of the novel.

Lev is 17 years old, still in that awkward stage bordering on being a boy and a man. Even though I'll end up discussing Kolya a lot, I liked Lev's character. He's just a regular kid who gets caught up in this situation. He cares for Mother Russia, but realizes how much she's screwing him over and remembers how much she screwed him in the past. He enjoys Kolya's company, but resents him at times, too.

Kolya, on the other hand, is a self-assured Russian soldier. He tends to put Lev down in certain situations, but Lev doesn't take him too seriously. I loved their interactions, mainly because Kolya is such an outrageous figure. He doesn't think before he speaks. He's confident to a fault, as he is the one who ends up getting them in dangerous situations. One of the funniest/oddest ongoing themes of the novel is Kolya keeping tabs on how it's been since he last took a shit. Perhaps I found it so hilarious because he reminds me of my friends. Conversation is no holds barred. Even though you don't want to hear it, you will. Too bad.

The book is quirky, even though it describes one of the more horrible moments in recent history. Anything you may have heard about the atrocities against Russia during the war is covered. Benioff throw Lev and Kolya right into the thick of things. Their search for eggs serves as a method to show what was happening in Russia. Lev's apartment complex is one of the many building destroyed by the German bombers. During their search for the eggs, Lev and Kolya come face to face with cannibals who try to trick them into becoming their dinner. Realizing that they won't find a dozen eggs in the city, they go to the outskirts. There they encounter teenage girls who have been providing pleasure to German soldiers in exchange for their livelihood, despite the fact that the German soldiers murdered their families and all the other inhabitants of their villages.

While Benioff's description of their various situations is gruesome and realistic, the novel still maintains a comedic aspect, mainly from Lev and Kolya's interactions. No matter how dangerous the scene, there existed some type of side note that made me smirk at them. The language is crass, which is just my kind of thing considering my foul mouthed vocabulary. Like I said, Kolya doesn't hold back. He talks about sex like Lev is his good friend, not someone he got paired up with a couple days ago. The search for the eggs is always in the back of his mind, but he won't let that stop him from talking about his interests.

With that said, you have to be up for these types of conversation to fully enjoy and appreciate the book because it's what brings the lightheartedness into such a horrible situation. Without Lev and Kolya, the book, while compelling, would just be another humdrum novel with a historical backdrop.


  1. I loved this book when I read, and I agree, it was definitely due to Benioff's ability to balance humor with tragedy. The comedic bits just made the sad parts so much stronger. The boy with all the chickens left a very strong impression on me because I felt so bad for the kid.

  2. oo this sounds good
    and fun!

    I borrow now please