During the Nazis’ brutal siege of Leningrad, Lev Beniov is arrested for looting and thrown into the same cell as a handsome deserter named 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, the New York Times bestseller 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.
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You have never been so hungry; you have never been so cold. When we slept, if we slept, we dreamed of the feasts we had carelessly eaten seven months earlier—all that buttered bread, the potato dumplings, the sausages—eaten with disregard, swallowing without tasting, leaving great crumbs on our plates, scraps of fat. In June of 1941, before the Germans came, we thought we were poor. But June seemed like paradise by winter.
At night the wind blew so loud and long it startled you when it stopped; the shutter hinges of the burnt-out café on the corner would quit creaking for a few ominous seconds, as if a predator neared and the smaller animals hushed in terror. The shutters themselves had been torn down for firewood in November. There was no more scrap wood in Leningrad. Every wood sign, the slats of the park benches, the floorboards of shattered buildings—all gone and burning in someone's stove. The pigeons were missing, too, caught and stewed in melted ice from the Neva. No one minded slaughtering pigeons. It was the dogs and cats that caused trouble. You would hear a rumor in October that someone had roasted the family mutt and split it four ways for supper; we'd laugh and shake our heads, not believing it, and also wondering if dog tasted good with enough salt— there was still plenty of salt, even when everything else ran out we had salt. By January the rumors had become plain fact. No one but the best connected could still feed a pet, so the pets fed us.
There were two theories on the fat versus the thin. Some said those who were fat before the war stood a better chance of survival: a week without food would not transform a plump man into a skeleton. Others said skinny people were more accustomed to eating little and could better handle the shock of starvation. I stood in the latter camp, purely out of self-interest. I was a runt from birth. Big-nosed, black-haired, skin scribbled with acne—let's admit I was no girl's idea of a catch. But war made me more attractive. Others dwindled as the ration cards were cut and cut again, halving those who looked like circus strongmen before the invasion. I had no muscle to lose. Like the shrews that kept scavenging while the dinosaurs toppled around them, I was built for deprivation.
So I was too young for the army but old enough to dig anti-tank ditches by day and guard the roofs by night. Manning my crew were my friends from the 5th floor, Vera Osipovna, a talented cellist, and the redheaded Antokolsky twins, whose only known talent was an ability to fart in harmony. In the early days of the war we had smoked cigarettes on the roof, posing as soldiers, brave and strong and square-chinned, scanning the skies for the enemy. By the end of December there were no cigarettes in Leningrad, at least none made with tobacco. A few desperate souls crushed fallen leaves, rolled them in paper and called them Autumn Lights, claiming the right leaves provided a decent smoke, but in the Kirov, far from the nearest standing tree, this was never an option. We spent our spare minutes hunting rats, who must have thought the disappearance of the city's cats was the answer to all their ancient prayers, until they realized there was nothing left to eat in the garbage.
We had a little radio on the roof with us. On New Year's Eve we listened to the Spassky chimes in Moscow playing the Internationale. Vera had found half an onion somewhere; she cut it into four pieces on a plate smeared with sunflower oil. When the onion was gone we mopped up the remaining oil with our ration bread. Ration bread did not taste like bread. It did not taste like food. After the Germans bombed the Badayev grain warehouses, the city bakeries got creative. Everything that could be added to the recipe without poisoning people was added to the recipe. The entire city was starving, no one had enough to eat, and still, everyone cursed the bread, the sawdust flavor, how hard it got in the cold. People broke their teeth trying to chew it. Even today, even when I've forgotten the faces of people I loved, I can still remember the taste of that bread.
Half an onion and a 125-gram loaf of bread split four ways—this was a decent meal. We lay on our backs, wrapped in blankets, watching the air raid blimps on their long tethers drifting in the wind, listening to the radio's metronome. When there was no music to play or news to report, the radio station transmitted the sound of a metronome, that endless tick-tick-tick letting us know the city was still unconquered, the Fascists still outside the gate. The broadcast metronome was Piter's beating heart, and the Germans never stilled it.
It was Vera who spotted the man falling from the sky. She shouted and pointed and we all stood to get a better look. One of the searchlights shone on a parachutist descending towards the city, his silk canopy a white tulip bulb above him.
“A Fritz,” said Oleg Antokolsky, and he was right, we could see the grey Luftwaffe uniform. Where had he come from? None of us had heard the sounds of aerial combat or the report of an AA gun. We hadn't heard a bomber passing overhead for close to an hour.
“Maybe it's started,” said Vera. For weeks we'd been hearing rumors that the Germans were preparing a massive paratrooper drop, a final raid to pluck the miserable thorn of Leningrad from their advancing army's backside. At any minute we expected to look up and see thousands of Nazis drifting toward the city, a snowstorm of white parachutes blotting out the sky, but dozens of searchlights slashed through the darkness and found no more enemies. There was only this one, and judging from the limpness of the body suspended from the parachute harness, he was already dead.
Excerpted from "City of Thieves"
Copyright © 2009 David Benioff.
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At the age of thirty-four, David, an Los Angeles–based screenwriter specializing in mutant superhero films, is asked to write an autobiographical piece for a trade magazine. Unable to muster any enthusiasm for his easy and undeniably pleasant American youth, he hops on a Florida-bound plane to interview his Russian grandfather about life in Leningrad during World War II. Mild-mannered Lev Beniov is reputed—by unspoken family lore—to have killed two Nazis in a knife fight that cost him a single fingertip. David asks to hear the true story, so Lev reaches into the distant past to share the horrors, privations, and adventures that the famously besieged city offered one young boy on the brink of manhood.
A Jew and the son of a poet who was "disappeared" by the NKVD (the Soviet secret police), Lev was nonetheless an ardent patriot who believed in the justness of the Soviet cause and enough of a naïf to still believe in the romance of war. Although too young to join the army, Lev refused to flee with his mother and sister, and proudly serves as commander of his apartment building's volunteer fire brigade. "I was seventeen, flooded with a belief in my own heroic destiny," (p. 9) he remembers. But his youth might still have passed uneventfully had a dead Nazi paratrooper not fallen onto his street one night. Lev and his friends—tempted by the prospect of chocolate or other contraband—break curfew to loot the body.
Lev alone is caught, arrested, and thrown into Leningrad's infamous prison, the Crosses. His cellmate, Kolya, is a soldier who's just been arrested for desertion and together the two await the dawn and almost certain execution. Lev is petrified, but Kolya is everything that Lev is not; boisterous and bombastic, handsome and charming, and annoyingly optimistic. "They're not preserving us for the night just to shoot us tomorrow," (p. 23) Kolya says as he drops off into a seemingly untroubled sleep. Miraculously, he is right. In the morning, the two are granted a reprieve conditional upon their acquiring a dozen eggs for the wedding cake of a powerful NKVD colonel's daughter within five days.
The task is preposterous. It is January—smack in the cold heart of a harsh Soviet winter—and the city has been cut off from all supplies for months. Most of Leningrad barely staves off starvation with miserly portions of sawdust-filled ration bread, but Lev and Kolya gamely set off to find their grail in a city where rats are hunted for their meat and the bindings of library books are boiled down for their nutrient-rich glue.
At first, Lev loathes Kolya, who teases him about being a Jew and whose every word and action he finds insufferable. Yet as they wend their way through Leningrad's black market underbelly and out into the battle-ravaged countryside, the timid, virginal Jew and his Cossack antithesis reveal themselves in ways that allow chinks of sympathy—and, ultimately, friendship—to grow.
A beguiling new novel from the acclaimed author and screenwriter of The 25th Hour, City of Thieves is a winning picaresque tale that illuminates the timeless struggles of growing up against the dramatic backdrop of Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union.
ABOUT DAVID BENIOFF
David Benioff is an author and screenwriter. His first novel, The 25th Hour, was adapted into a popular feature film. His short story collection, When the Nines Roll Over, received critical acclaim. He lives in Los Angeles and New York City.
A CONVERSATION WITH DAVID BENIOFF
Q. City of Thieves begs the question: Did all this really happen to your grandfather?
No. My grandfather was born on a farm in Delaware. He became a furrier and died in Allentown, Pennsylvania. My grandmother (unlike the non-cooking grandmother in the book) made the best chopped chicken liver in the state. Neither one, as far as I know, ever visited Russia.
Q. David notes, "Truth might be stranger than fiction, but it needs a better editor." (p. 4) How much "editing" did you do?
See answer to number one. A whole lot.
Q. How much additional research did you do to write this novel?
I had a wonderful teacher once, the novelist Ann Patchett. I asked her about the research she did for The Magician's Assistant, and she told me to choose the single best book on the given subject and study it obsessively. Writers are always tempted to track down dozens of books to help give our make-believe stories that tang of authenticity, but often the problem with too much research is a writing style that seems too researched, dry and musty, and eager for a history teacher's gold star of approval.
Unfortunately, my will was not strong enough for me to follow Ann's advice. I did end up reading dozens of books on the Siege of Leningrad. In her honor, though, I picked one that became my Bible: The Nine Hundred Days by Harrison Salisbury. He was the first Western journalist to have access to Leningrad once the siege was lifted. He spoke firsthand with hundreds of Russians who survived the siege, and he collected as many diaries, journals, and letters as he could. The second most important book for me was Kaputt by Curzio Malaparte. A former Fascist, Malaparte was essentially an embedded journalist before the concept existed. He rode along with the German and Finnish forces during the early months of Barbarossa and his accounts provided me a necessary glimpse of the invaders' mindset, tactics, and appearance.
Q. You're a successful Hollywood screenwriter. The Kite Runner is something you recently adapted for film. Why did you make David a writer of "mutant superhero" movies?
David, the narrator of the prologue, is not David the guy writing these words. The David of the novel (who might or might not be David Beniov; it is not clear whether Lev Beniov is David's paternal or maternal grandfather) is similar to me in many respects, but he's not me. That said, I did write the screenplay for Wolverine, featuring a mutant superhero.
Q. In the novel, David "realized I had led an intensely dull life. . . . I didn't want to write about my life, not even for five hundred words." (p. 3) Would you have preferred—as the Chinese curse says—to live in "interesting times"?
Unfortunately, these are interesting times. The narrator goes on to say that he enjoys his life; and I do, too.
Q. At first glance, City of Thieves and The 25th Hour seem to tell very different stories—one is historical and set during a time of great societal upheaval, while the other is contemporary and deals with one man facing his own crimes. Yet both are ultimately about young men and friendship. What draws you to write a particular story?
That's a hard question to answer. In both cases the stories were stuck in my mind for years before I wrote them. The 25th Hour was based on a short story I wrote in college. Seven years after I wrote the story, the characters were still chattering in my brain, which seemed to me a good sign that I wasn't finished with them.
For City of Thieves I had the characters and story in 2000 but could never quite figure out how to write the novel. I kept shifting back and forth between first person and third person. I rewrote the opening page at least a dozen times. Finally, in September 2006, I got cracking for real.
Q. If you were in Lev's place, do you think you would have chosen to stay in Leningrad or would you have left with your mother and sister? Why?
I don't know. If something happened to my mother and sister on their way to safety, the guilt would probably destroy me. At the same, if you're a teenage boy, living in the center of the greatest armed conflict in the history of the world, you don't want to flee. You want to do your part and protect your city.
Q. A lot of what Lev sees and experiences could be described as tragic, yet his story is told with a lot of humor. What made you decide to give the novel its light-hearted tone?
I'm not sure if light-hearted is the right word for a story that includes cannibalism, forced prostitution, involuntary amputation, and starvation. What inspired the humor was reading the diaries of the Leningrad survivors. Their daily accounts of their struggles are often grim, but almost always hopeful and full of life. People continued attending (and performing in) concerts, plays, and poetry readings despite all the suffering around them.
Q. What are the differences between writing for film and writing a novel? What do you like and dislike about each?
Screenplays are much shorter: Twelve weeks and you're done. A novel can take years. Writing a novel is an endurance sport, a marathon, while a screenplay (or a short story) is more of a middle-distance race—800 meters, say. To extend this possibly inane analogy, a poem would be a sprint in a stadium with no spectators.
Q. What are you working on now?
A series for HBO. We'll see if it ever gets made.