Spoilers: this is going to be a glowing review.
It’s been a long time since I read a great book. So far this year I’ve read mostly good books, and a few average books. Some had interesting stories, some had great characters, and some told their stories in an engaging voice, but none of them excelled in all three of these categories while at the same time immersing me completely. I know what I’ve just described sounds like nothing less than the most glorious piece of writing ever published in book format, and that’s most definitely not what City of Thieves is, but it’s the closest so far this year.
This novel was the first page-turner for me in 2016. The only thing that stopped me from devouring it in one night was when I was one third of the way through and realized City of Thieves was something to be savoured and enjoyed at a reasonable pace.
But enough with the baity introduction. In this review I will talk about why I love this book so much, using the three standard categories of fiction evaluation.
This book is about Lev, a seventeen-year-old boy, and Kloya, a soldier of the Russian Red Army. It takes place during World War II, and at the beginning of the story Lev and Kloya are thrown into the same prison cell for different reasons, which is how they meet. They are brought before a Colonel, who tells them that his daughter is getting married, but there are no eggs (due to the war) for his daughter’s wedding cake, and so a deal is made: if Lev and Kloya can find a dozen eggs somewhere in war-torn Russia, they’ll be pardoned and given ration cards so that they’ll never starve again.
A spectacular premise, no? Spectacular in that it’s completely crazy, but despite how silly this initial premise sounds, it leads the story into dark and unsettling corners. For example, one of Lev and Kloya’s early stops is to investigate a rumour that somewhere in the city is an old man with a chicken coop on the roof of his building. They find the coop and the old man frozen to death inside. Beside the corpse is a little boy who has descended into dementia, holding on to the last surviving chicken and muttering to himself that he needs to protect it for his father. Such is the pattern of City of Thieves: it often jumps from ridiculous and funny to depressing and disturbing almost instantaneously.
The bleak setting is the reason why the humour works. Even when we are reading about frozen corpses littered about everywhere, how neighbours have turned to cannibalism to survive, and what the Nazis did to Russian prisoners, the humour sprinkled throughout the book is never inappropriate, but rather all the more effective because no matter how horrible the world is or can be, it is part of human nature to still be able to observe something and laugh. This is Benioff’s greatest accomplishment: the fact that he has created a setting for his story that simultaneously showcases the horror of war and the hope of the human heart in the form of humour, and not holding back in his representation of either.
At its heart, this is a story about two guys trying to find a dozen eggs, but you’d be surprised how much you will see along the way.
Lev is a seventeen-year-old virgin, a volunteer fighter from the city of St. Petersburg (then known as Leningrad, or Piter to its residents), who gets thrown into jail when he is caught looting a German soldier’s corpse. City of Thieves is equal parts historic fiction and coming-of-age, and there is very little that can force a teenage to grow up more quickly than war.
Some of the comedy relies on Lev’s naivety and wit, but it is Lev’s perspective that also gives us the moral and social commentary on the things going on around him. It’s easy to relate to his voice because most of us haven’t been in a war, nor have we been invaded by a foreign power and forced to endure famine and poverty. Because Lev is young, he still has hope, and he still worries about things like girls, and this what makes the narrative real and appealing. In a world where crazy things are happening, Lev is a reminder of what normal is, and sometimes you can’t help but laugh when the normal meets the ridiculous, and vice versa.
The real source of humour, however, lies in the character of Kloya. Extremely charismatic, charming, and crude, Kloya is a lovable scamp who takes it upon himself to guide Lev on the road of life. He’s only three years old than Lev, and the sole mark of his authority, at least in the beginning, seems to be the fact that he knows more about sex than Lev.
Not only was City of Thieves the first page-turner I’ve read in a long time, but I also haven’t loved a character as much as Kloya in a long time as well. I don’t want to spoil the story for you, in case you’re planning to read it, but describing Kloya and what he does wouldn’t be enough. He’s not endearing because of a particular quirk or because of any single decision he makes in the story. Kloya’s awesomeness is embedded in his essence. It’s his reasoning behind his actions, his absurd reactions to absurdity itself, his unyielding confidence in himself, his sense of righteousness, his frankness, and so on. Where Lev is serious, Kloya jokes around; when it is clear what the next logical step is, Kloya convinces Lev to do something else, and it usually works! Kloya is a wild card, but he also grows to be Lev’s best friend and surrogate father figure. Just watching Lev and Kloya growing together is a plot in of itself.
The rest of the story is filled with interesting side characters, such as an enigmatic colonel looking for eggs, a deadly female sniper, and a Nazi officer who may have served as the inspiration for Christopher Waltz’s performance. All in all, City of Thieves offers a varied cast of lively characters, all of them having a hand in the plot’s events, because if they’re not trying to find food, they’re actively trying to kill someone. No surprise that these are the two great ways to move a plot along.
I don’t read Russian literature too often. I’ve read War and Peace, and it was enjoyable, but that was written quite a while ago. I’m not an expert or an academic on the subject either, but I can wholeheartedly state that City of Thieves is distinctly Russian not just in subject matter but in tone as well, and that is another major reason why I love this book.
The humour is blunt, but effective. Dialogue is vulgar, but never crass. This book is not ashamed of what it is, and proudly stands naked with its hands on its hips and its hairy genitals swaying with the wind, and it’s fantastic. I’ve had plenty of exposure to American humour (dry wit, heavy satire) and British humour (sarcastic and subtle), and so it was a great change of pace to read something that can make me laugh about a world-record-breaking pile of shit. I wouldn’t be able to duplicate this type of humour even if my life depended on it; the Russian style of literature is unique, and for modern audiences I cannot recommend this book enough as a starting point (provided you don’t take things too seriously…).
On a more serious note, it is the same bluntness that enables City of Thieves‘s more touching and thought-provoking moments. What is worth fighting for? Dying for? Killing for? The novel explores these questions throughout Lev and Kloya’s journey, and rather than employ philosophical or logical paragraphs of rhetoric, the seemingly obvious truth is often delivered in a line or two, whether by one of the characters or by the narration itself. Sometimes when we hear the truth we know instinctively it is right. and there is no need for evidence and arguments. No one deserves what happened to the Jews and the other unwanted during World War II. War is atrocious and horrifying. Humans are capable of doing the worst to one another, but they’re also capable of being their best. When these types of things are shown to us, they resonate with our intuition and our hearts, and this novel pulls it off all throughout, both when it’s trying to make us laugh and when it’s being serious.
Benioff has struck an elegant equilibrium with this book. It’s simultaneously a black comedy and an outlook on life. It shows us humanity at its lowest and highest. It’s about two guys trying to find a dozen eggs, and it’s about a country being invaded by another. This is all held together by a narration capable of delivering crisp sentences and telling a really good joke with a straight face.
I recommend this book to anyone, though it’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea, particularly the easily offended and overly sensitive. It’s a short novel, easily doable in a week at two/three chapters a night.
What you’ll be getting is an extraordinary civilian war story. There is no moral statement, glamorization, or philosophy. It’s a story plain and simple, and a good one at that. The saddest part for me was when I was getting close to the end, but such is the bittersweet nature of being hooked by a damn good book.
Even so, I’m glad I stumbled across it. It was the first novel in 2016 that briefly made reading an addiction again, something I hadn’t felt in a long time. The more novels you read, the more infrequently this happens, and so I hope you find this novel worthwhile as well, should you give it the chance.
This has been a gamobo review.