It’s four months into the siege of Leningrad, and 17-year-old Lev has been arrested for looting a German corpse – a crime punishable by death. Held in a cell overnight, he is expecting the worst when a new cell mate, Kolya, is brought in. He has been charged with desertion (another crime that carries a death sentence) – seems entirely unfazed by events, and waits out the rest of the night with ease.
The next morning, they are removed from their cell, but rather than being taken to a firing squad, they are presented to a colonel whose daughter is getting married that week. And for a wedding, the colonel’s wife has declared, there must be a cake.
It is terrible luck, a wedding with no cake
And that means eggs. All the other ingredients have been successfully hoarded, only eggs are required. In a city under siege, where ‘normal’ food supplies have largely been exhausted and the general population have turned to less palatable items for nourishment, Lev and Kolya must find a dozen eggs.
So begins their mission which will take them through the city, and out into the countryside in the harsh Russian winter. The odds aren’t in their favour.
You couldn’t let too much truth seep into your conversation, you couldn’t admit with your mouth what your eyes had seen.
One thing that really stood out about City of Thieves was the contrast between their somewhat farcical mission and the dire circumstances of Leningrad and its inhabitants. Lev and Kolya encounter the starved citizens who have resorted to eating anything they can get their hands on – pets, books and worse (in some cases) as the food runs out and any supplies that might help them survive have been cut off by the German’s:
library candy, made from tearing the covers off of books, peeling off the binding glue, boiling it down, and reforming it into bars you could wrap in paper. The stuff tasted like wax, but there was protein in the glue, protein kept you alive
Even if anyone has eggs, they are unlikely to part with them for anything less than a fortune, and maybe not even that – you can’t eat a fortune, after all. So their mission seems doomed from the outset, and yet the novel itself remains light-hearted. Kolya jokes almost constantly, and his Casanova-esque exploits are enough to make the innocent Lev blush.
Whilst these are two different people who wouldn’t normally come into contact with each other, they bond in the way that shared hardship often unites people, and I loved how the relationship between them developed throughout the novel. Lev sees Kolya as a boaster, and yet time and again he lives up to the claims he makes. And he takes Lev under his wing. Young, naïve Lev, who has skills of his own that come into play before the novel’s conclusion, which I won’t spoil for you.
Benioff is an excellent writer – City of Thieves and The 25th Hour are both incredible novels, and yet very different from each other. I look forward to picking up his collection of short stories, When the Nines Roll Over, and I hope that he goes on to write more at some point in the future.