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City of Thieves: A Novel - David Benioff

”How could you fear anything more than death?
Everything else offered moments of escape: a paralyzed man could still read Dickens; a man in the grips of dementia might have flashes of the most absurd beauty.”

Lev Beniov wants to live. He may not be clear about anything else, but he knows that to be true. Life becomes more precious when being anywhere, not just in the wrong place, but just existing in space, can turn into a death trap at any moment. When his mother and sister fled the city he decided to stay. Now he is caught up in one of the worst sieges in the history of the world, he is in Leningrad or as I always think of it St. Petersburg.

Lev is seventeen years old. 

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Because it is mostly a city of islands, Leningrad was isolated from the rest of the Soviet Union by the Nazis’ control or destruction of its bridges.

When I went to Google the siege of Leningrad to brush up on the events that provided the background for this novel I was slightly taken aback when all I had to do was put in SIEGE and BAM there was Leningrad. The Germans made the decision, instead of going street by street and house by house, to just starve the citizens and remaining soldiers out of the city. They put a ring of soldiers around the perimeter of the city so that no one can come in and no one can come out. The staggering results are the deaths of two million Russian soldiers and civilians. 

”I was built for deprivation.”

We’ve all maybe been a bit hungry, but many of us cocooned in a civilized world where food is plentiful and relatively cheap may not remember the last time we had a hunger pain. Lev and the remaining people of Leningrad have went beyond hungry to near starvation. People are dying daily because now there is no cushion of calories between them and dying. One day without some type of food intake will be...the final day. 

It is almost like a gift from God, if Lev believed in such a person, to see the German paratrooper, frozen to death, drift down from the sky. Lev and his friends pounce on the body ransacking pockets finding food, a nice Damascus blade, and a flask of cognac or maybe schnapps how could they know the difference? But it spreads a warmth through their bodies like a hot meal or a roaring fire. 

They take too long, a crucial loss of focus. Maybe it is the bonanza of food and booze that makes them forget for a moment that they are vulnerable out in the open. The soldiers are on them quickly and there is a mad scramble for safety. 

Lev is caught. He is shocked they didn’t execute him for looting immediately. He has seen it happen before. He is thrown into a cell and there he meets Kolya who is also in dire trouble. He is charged with desertion and they didn’t execute him either. This isn’t a time for trials or due process. Shooting someone is just one less mouth to feed. The rules are maddeningly unpredictable. It is always best to assume the worst. 

Now Kolya didn’t desert because he was afraid or because he was homesick. He deserted because he was horny. He is a tall, good looking guy who is used to having a steady diet of sexual encounters. With most of the city too calorie deprived to even think about anything as strenuous as sex, it is still his number one concern. His number two concern is; in fact, number two. He hasn’t taken a crap in eleven days. 

”The loneliest sound in the world is other people making love.”

As Lev soon finds out.

The reason they are still alive is there is a Colonel who needs a dozen eggs. He is throwing a wedding feast for his daughter and they need eggs to bake her wedding cake. Kolya and Lev seem like improbable candidates to pull off such an impossible mission. They are dead men walking though and the Colonel has offered a pardon if they can bring him back the eggs he needs. Need, such an interesting concept when for most of the city twelve eggs represent twelve days with a meal. 

The boys get to see the Colonel’s daughter ice skating on the river. 

”It took me a few seconds to realize why she looked so strange, and then it was obvious--even at a distance you could tell that the girl was well fed. There was nothing pinched and desperate about her face. She had an athlete’s casual grace, her pirouettes were tight and fast; she never got winded. Her thighs must have been magnificent--long, pale, and strong--and I could feel my prick hardening for the first time in days.”

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Rain down on me ladies! Peter Paul van Rubens, detail from 'The Disembarkation at Marseille' .

Lev hasn’t seen a woman in a long time that he didn’t have to mentally add weight to her figure and her face to determine if she used to be pretty. 

”I finally fell asleep and dreamed of a sky raining fat girls.”

Their task takes them behind enemy lines where they meet pretty Russian girls kept for the amusement of the Germans, cannibals who have learned that the buttocks make the best steaks, and a female sniper named Vika who Lev falls head over heels in lust with. 

”I was raised to be clean and it bothered me when others were not… But Vika’s wet dog smell did not offend me. All of us were slathered in grime by that point, of course--I must have stunk like week-old fish myself--but this wasn’t about being inured to foul odors. The tang off her body made me want to lick her clean.”

It is such a burden to be virginal. *sigh* 

I’ve lost track of how many days it has been since Kolya took a crap. It is somewhere around twenty days. He has decided that his bowels are waiting for the end of the siege (the siege ended up lasting 872 days). He is looking forward to feeling the relief of a VICTORY CRAP.

Despite the stark circumstances that provide the backdrop for this novel there are many moments of unexpected humor that lend brevity to the growing frustrations and dangers in trying to achieve their mission. Watching the evolution of the friendship between two very different young men, a Cossack and a Jew, is not only heartwarming, but memorable. Lev’s father, a relatively famous poet, who was disappeared by the NKVD looms over the story as ghostly as Hamlet’s father. Lev has the soul of a poet, but lacks the gift to express it. Kolya is working steadily each evening, when he hasn’t found some woman willing to help him with his continually heated loins, on his novel title The Courtyard Hound. I have feeling his writing is spicy. 

It all comes down to a game of chess, but then isn’t all of life a game of chess? We make sacrifices, pawns, rooks, and bishops, and hope the results prove worthy of what we have given up. The longer these two young men are together we can see their minds expanding exponentially just because one is with the other.