City of Thieves is a work of historical fiction, taking place within the siege of Leningrad. I knew nothing of this siege, and so amidst the story, I learned more of the tragedy of WWII. In the back of the book, author David Benioff lists two books as laying the historic foundation for City of Thieves:
- The 900 Days by Harrison Salisbury
- Kaputt by Curzio Malaparte
This story, set in Leningrad (modern-day St. Petersburg), is a coming-of-age adventure told within the grotesque reality of the Nazi siege of Leningrad. Historically, this city of 3 million people lost nearly half of its residents to air raids, starvation, and cold. In City of Thieves, two soldiers on the wrong side of the law are tasked with securing a dozen eggs for a Russian colonel’s daughter’s wedding. If they can obtain the eggs (a rare indulgence during the war), they will live. If not, they will be executed. This is a second chance at life for the two soldiers.
Along the way, the soldiers come in contact with Nazis, Russian partisan fighters, and Russian prisoners. Everything is flipped on its head as it is wartime. It’s as if they are living in Catch 22.
The main character, Lev Benioff (fictional grandfather to the book’s author), recounts his harrowing story to his screenwriting grandson. The story kept me engaged the entire time. I think I may have started reading this 10 years ago around the time it was first released. I remember parts of the beginning of the book quite clearly, but not the middle to end. It was an odd experience at the beginning to recognize the book, but not having a recollection of having read it.
There were some extremely disturbing scenes in the book. One on the level of Blood Meridian. If this were made into a movie with all of the details from the book, it would easily be rated X. I didn’t like that and still have a visual in my head of the most disturbing scene. I know that stuff happens. I just hate having it in my head.
The title of the book comes from a comment from Hitler regarding Leningrad:
…the birthplace of Bolshevism, the city of thieves and maggots.
The more historical fiction I read, the more I enjoy it. I have a very hard time with fantasy books. One of the main reasons is that I feel like I’m learning about a place that doesn’t exist in any other novels. However, with historical fiction, I’m learning about actual events, and it usually makes me want to learn more. I plan to read the 900 Days book referenced above at some point in the next two years.
Other than that, I’m torn about recommending this book. I enjoyed the storyline, but don’t think it was worth it to have some of the scenes still stuck in my head. The grotesque violence is searing and the sexual discussions quite crude. On the other hand, these atrocities happened, and the book only fictionally covers probably 100 of the 1.5 million people that died during this siege. Imagine all of those individual stories.