Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

09 Dec 2011

(Novel) City of Thieves by: David Benioff

(Reaction) Don't you speak Russian? We're waiting for the eggs! by: Antonio Conejos

City of Thieves is essentially a bildungsroman - a coming of age story. Benioff's novel begins with bravery established. The first sentence proudly declares, My grandfather, the knife fighter, killed two Germans before he was eighteen... it was something I always seemed to know. Yet City of Thieves is not about courage per se but of how bravery can grow from an unlikely source. In this case, a not particularly inspiring Jewish adolescent who constantly doubts himself.

Lev (the narrator's grandfather and recognized knife fighter) begins WWII without a knife, pistol, any armament, or even a martial spirit. Yet as he is young and idealistic he volunteers to stay in Leningrad, his home, and defend it from the invading Nazis.

This idealism, a hallmark of youth, is quickly bombed, assaulted and attacked out of Lev. Five days ago an account of this expedition would have seemed like the great adventure I'd been waiting for since the war began. But now, in the middle of it, I'd wished I'd left in September with my mother and sister.

Leningrad is almost thoroughly crushed under the Nazi offensive. This destruction is manifested in the characters' perpetual hunger (making the central quest of the novel simultaneously poignant and absurd) and made personal in Lev's quiet thought, There was no one left in the city who knew my full name.

As the novel escalates everything is stripped away, hope is taken from the young, buildings are peeled off the city, skin gives way to bare bones. Even the sky is emaciated, Only a single fish skeleton of cloud interrupted the blue sky.

City of Thieves details then what we give up in order to grow up. Coming of age is always associated with what we let go. In this case Lev lets go of his naive illusions in the face of stark reality.

Yet the story also revolves around that which we hold on to, of the improbable characters who allow us to think (with a start) that perhaps there is something great in one's self as well, no matter how improbable that may first seem. Further, it is the equally improbable adventures which will fashion and forge this greatness.

Thus it is in teaming up with Kolya, the most improbable of characters, that Lev begins to see a glimmer of the potential within himself, Still, if there wasn't greatness in me, maybe I had the talent to recognize it in others, even in the most irritating others. And it is on the most improbable of missions (eggs for a wedding cake!) that this potential will be manifested.

Kolya is larger than life, a Russian through and through. Thus it is fitting that, having triumphed over the winter and the Nazis and hunger, Kolya can only be defeated by a fellow Russian. An untrained conscripted Russian at that, as Kolya puts it, Probably got their rifles a week ago... Can you believe it? Shot in the ass by my own people.

In City of Thieves the reader comes to an appreciation that coming of age means letting go of some irrationalities (blind loyalty, subservience) and partaking for a lifetime in others (courage, friendship, love).


Highly entertaining read. It is simultaneously familiar (a questing party consisting of a dorky kid tossed in with confidence oozing, physically adept poster boy) and original (the setting adds greatly to this). Props to David Benioff for spinning a yarn that is endearing without being corny.

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