review: city of thieves

10 February 2013





book  info
on sale: now
copy  from: school library
pages: 258
review written: February 7th and 8th 2013

During the Nazis’ brutal siege of Leningrad, Lev Beniov is arrested for looting and thrown into the same cell as a handsome deserted name Kolya. Instead of being executed, Lev and Kolya are given a shot at saving their own lives by complying with an outrageous directive: secure a dozen eggs for a powerful Soviet colonel to use in his daughter’s wedding cake. In a city cut off from all supplies and suffering unbelievable deprivation, Lev and Kolya embark on a hunt through the dire lawlessness of Leningrad and behind enemy lines to find the impossible.

By turns insightful and funny, thrilling and terrifying, City of Thieves is a gripping, cinematic World War II adventure and an intimate coming-of-age story with an utterly contemporary feel for how boys become men.


My thoughts:

David Benioff is a name that sounds like any other author’s name, and I thought little of it as I picked this book out from my school library. I’d like to express that despite my discontent with the books that my high school decides to buy (appealing to young adult readers with a massive collection of the latest dystopian/chick-flick books), there are some gems. I researched him just now, and discovered his amazing career as a screenwriter. He was actually the screenwriter of Troy (2004) and produced some of my favourite lines ever. He’s also created Game of Thrones and X-Men Origins. I had no idea that he was such a famous person, who actually had been a high school English teacher. From all this, I would not expect him to have written this type of story.

The page before the title page, reserved for dedications, has two beautiful and intriguing quotes. I’ll share the first one, since I believe it’s more relevant. The second one is one I’ll share later on, as it’s a bit confusing.
“and if the City falls but a single man escapes
he will carry the City within himself on the roads of exile
he will be the City”
-Zbigniew Herbert

The preface of the story is David asking his Russian grandfather about World War II in Russia. “My grandfather, the knife fighter, killed two Germans before he was eighteen” is how it starts.  He will later tell the story of his grandfather, weaving in fiction with fact.
I didn’t know it was possible to write an uplifting, horribly gruesome, horribly sad and yet laugh-out-loud funny story in this way.  I’ll borrow someone else’s words on this one as well:

[the book]  "features a snappy plot, a buoyant friendship, a quirky courtship, an assortment of menacing bad guys, an atmosphere that flickers between grainy realism and fairy-tale grotesquerie and a grim but irrepressible sense of humor,"
- Donna Rifkind of Los Angeles Times

This describes perfectly how I felt when reading this book, as if it were a film. This seems fitting as Benioff is a screenwriter. The book itself was something I really enjoyed. It’s crude, disgusting, sarcastically humorous and delightfully raw. One of my favourite aspects of this book is the relationship between Lev and the handsome Kolya. It’s strange how opposites attract. Lev is the shy, awkward and “unattractive” virgin whereas Kolya is the handsome, tall German-looking (Aryan) womaniser. Their friendship was odd and yet it worked. Their dynamic produced the most hilariously crass dialogues I've read in a long time. It’s hard not to fall in love with Kolya’s charming character. He who loves literature, desperately wanting to shit (pardon my language) and passionately rants about fictional characters (sounds like someone I can relate to). However, he has a cold, fearless side to him that adds layers of complexity to his character. Other than that, he’s quite comedic at times. I'm flipping to a random page (147) and I've found this:

“Kolya nudged me with his elbow and whispered under his breath “ I've got a little bit of a hard-on”
“What’s that?” asked Korsakov.
“I said my cock’s going to fall of it we stand out here much longer—pardon my language”.
City of Thieves, page 147
I can’t quite detect the subtly of their possible homosexuality. It’s slim, almost non-existent. But this is where the second quote I mentioned comes in.
“At last Schenk thought he understood and began laughing louder. Then suddenly he asked in a serious tone, “Do you that the Russians are homosexuals?”
“You’ll find out at the end of the war,” I replied.
-Curzio Malaparte
There are ambiguous hints here and there, some more obvious than others, but I love how this adds a layer of intrigue and complexity to their already honestly odd friendship. For me, this book has been worth it because of this unique friendship.

Other aspects I feeling guilty about admitting that I actually liked was the gruesome descriptions and circumstances that Lev and Kolya stumble upon. I felt nauseous, horrified and shocked. Cannibalism? This appeals to the darker side of human nature for both me and the repulsive act of cannibals. Me, for actually being fascinated by the very thought of it (in a bad way, a disgusted fascination) and for the people who were pushed to such extremes as to disregard all civility. I remember reading that in a market, sausages made from grounded human was sold. The Siege of Leningrad (St Petersburg) was catastrophic and is said to be the most “lethal siege in history”. Numerous amounts of people died under the intense conditions. Civilians were give 125 grams of bread, mostly consisting of sawdust and anything else that would not kill a human and ration cards soon became restricted. Coupled with cold (to at least -30 degrees Celsuis) and bombardments from Germans on cities, I find Lev’s story absolutely amazing. This is a history I have never read in a historical novel on this part of history before, so City of Thieves, on top of being so uniquely written also provided me with details and accounts of the occurrences in Leningrad. I'm more interested in the social impact of war on the people than I am about the politics.

 Back on the note of the atrocities: I connected with Lev on the horrors he saw, and experienced the more serious, strangely cool and creepy side of Kolya. These horrors shaped Lev. Imagine being a youthful seventeen year old, witnessing these acts that abandon all morality, witnessing death on a daily basis. City of Thieves is definitely not the first book to describe such events, but what I found even more fascinating was the location. I have read little modern-day Russian based literature. I'm ashamed to say the last historical fiction novel based in Russia was over a year or two ago with Susanne Dunlap’s Anastasia’s Secret. Time and time again, I have read about the monstrous acts of the German Nazi’s, but never before like this, in Russia.

I warn readers that this book as outrageously crass language, sex, and repulsive acts that may or not may not be suitable for the preteen. In an age where young adults are more mature than ever before (less innocent, I mean) I’m troubled on what age group I would recommend this to. Whatever best fits your judgement.
All in all, I enjoyed it! Four trees!

1 thoughts:

  1. This sounds interesting, certainly different from all the paranormal/romantic YA books out there!

    ReplyDelete

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