I’m sorry the story had to end.
An author visits his retired grandparents in Florida with the goal of documenting their experience during the WWII siege of Leningrad. His grandfather takes a full week to recount the story of two young men who brave the war’s worst elements during a ridiculous official assignment. His story takes off like a shot, and what follows is a remarkable tale of bravery, friendship and the beautiful determination to survive.
Welcome to City Of Thieves, a novel that stole my heart.
During Hitler’s manic plan to capture Leningrad, those Russian citizens who were not fleeing for their lives were slowly starving to death in the cut-off city. Life was a misery with ration cards, curfews and the constant threat of a bullet to the back of the head. When 17-year old Lev Beniov found himself at the mercy of Russian soldiers one night (after raiding a German corpse in the street), the future seemed bleak indeed. As he waited in a jail cell in full terror of his execution, he met an unlikely cellmate: the smooth and charismatic Kolya. It was a strange pairing, with Lev ‘the looter’ being small, smart and bitterly angry, and Kolya ‘the deserter’ being large, blonde, handsome and deftly witty. Both characters were extremely intelligent, and for the bulk of the novel, that was their only similarity. It wasn’t until the end that they had something much more endearing in common.
Rather than executing the two lads, a powerful Russian colonel gives them an impossible mission. Find one dozen eggs for his daughter’s wedding cake, and they would be spared. Fail the task, and the repercussions were obvious. The pair was given a letter written by the colonel that would enable them to get past soviet checkpoints… with the timeline of 5 days. 5 days to find one dozen eggs in a city that had been cut off from civilization. The only option was to get beyond enemy lines, as the Germans hoarded everything from butter to meat. Lev and Kolya set off on their bizarre quest, which would almost seem funny if it wasn’t so terrifying.
Their adventure takes them from the streets of Leningrad to devastated countrysides. They encounter everyone you could imagine on this journey, from cannibals and prisoners to guerrilla partisans and NKVD. Ultimately, they come face to face with enemy.
The quest itself, while wildly clever, is shadowed by the friendship that emerges from this life threatening egg hunt. Lev is the bitter kid who does not want to be teased about his virginity, and Kolya is the smooth operator who’s both maddeningly calm and sincerely sweet. Their bickering is outrageous, and at times, laugh out loud funny. Lev is a chess player. Kolya is a writer. Lev is angry. Kolya never loses his cool. Lev does not want to hear Kolya’s advice about how to be with a woman. Kolya shares his pearls of wisdom anyway. Their banter was enough to forget that their lives were at risk with every step. And this, in my opinion, was the heart of the story. During an inane quest, two opposites became the best of friends. Their devotion to one another made my heart swell. I loved each of them in equal measure. What a treat to be given a compelling plot and fascinating characters – such storytelling is a gift.
There were several portions of this novel that were mired in horrific historic detail. These sections were difficult to endure. The Russian girls who were kept alive for German soldiers… the anti-tank dogs… the threat of being turned in by your own and “taken…” the literacy test given by German soldiers to determine who would live and who would die. City Of Thieves broke my heart many, many times. While the story is steeped in friendship and determination, the atrocities of the war will still burrow under your skin. While this is a story with a bright spot, it’s still a war story.
This novel, originally published in 2008, might already be on your to-read list. I encourage you to get a copy sooner than later, because I’m now wondering why I waited. City Of Thieves might shine an unflinching light on the atrocities of WWII, but it also leaves you with the comforting knowledge that the human spirit is stronger than any evil. This book is beautifully written, shares brilliant dialogue, and offers copious amounts of inspiration. I miss Lev and Kolya terribly, but they’ll always be in my heart.
I’m also not telling you if they found the eggs.
This audiobook was narrated by the remarkable Ron Perlman. I have to confess that I actually had this paperback sitting on my bookshelf, but when I saw Perlman’s name on the audiobook jacket, I pounced. So happy that I did. His deep intonations were the perfect fit for this story. His Lev and Kolya were spot on, but I have to note that Kolya’s inflections stole the show for me. You could hear Perlman grinning while he read Kolya’s lines – it was the ultimate embodiment. It was a 5-star performance from beginning to end. Add me to the list of Perlman fans who love his narration. I’d listen to him read the phone book.
5 stars for City Of Thieves. Shame on me for waiting this long to love this book.