Wartime Rations

I want to hate David Benioff. He’s annoyingly handsome. He’s already written a pair of unputdownable books, one of which was made into Spike Lee’s most heartbreaking film, “The 25th Hour” — for which Benioff was asked to write the screenplay, leading to a second career in Hollywood. (They should just get it over with and put the man in the movies already.) He takes his morning orange juice next to Amanda Peet. And he’s still in his 30s. See what I mean?

Benioff’s new novel reveals why there are so many Russians — not oligarchs or prostitutes, but soldiers and old babushkas — in this nice American boy’s fiction. “City of Thieves” follows a character named Lev Beniov, the son of a revered Soviet Jewish poet who was “disappeared” in the Stalinist purges, as Lev and an accomplice carry out an impossible assignment during the Nazi blockade of Leningrad. Before Lev begins to tell his story, however, a young Los Angeles screenwriter named David visits his grandfather in Florida, pleading for his memories of the siege. But this is no postmodern coquetry. In fact, the novel tells a refreshingly traditional tale, driven by an often ingenious plot. And after that first chapter Benioff is humble enough to get out of its way. For some writers, Russia inspires extravagant lamentations uttered into the eternity of those implacable winters. Happily, Benioff’s prose doesn’t draw that kind of attention to itself.

Lev, an intelligent, awkward, eternally self-doubting Jewish teenager, and Kolya, a Slavic Adonis, have been imprisoned after wartime infractions. Awaiting execution, they’re summoned by the secret police: Colonel Grechko’s daughter is getting married, and eggs are needed for the cake. It would be easier to find snow in Saudi Arabia, but if Lev and Kolya can locate a dozen they’ll get back their ration cards — and their lives. Very soon, the odd couple are dodging a husband-and-wife team of cannibals and seducing their way — well, Kolya is, at least — through the starving city.

This isn’t flippant or inappropriately irreverent: gallows humor, so nourished by the horrors of Stalin’s regime, certainly survived into the era of the blockade. In contrast to the piety of so many of today’s historical novels — their facts unimpeachable and their souls somewhere in the library — Benioff’s book lets its characters inhabit the human condition in all of its sometimes compromised versatility.

But it’s never cavalier, because the author has done his research. Benioff could have read in a history book — or learned from his grandfather — that cannibals first went for the buttocks, “the softest meat, easiest for making patties and sausages,” but an expletive that a passing driver shouts at Lev and Kolya requires a sixth sense. I know of no such phrase in Russian, but in an English-language novel simulating Russian speech, it captures precisely the maternal obsessions of Russian swearing.

The research never stands out because Benioff weaves it in so deftly. He shifts tone with perfect control — no recent novel I’ve read travels so quickly and surely between registers, from humor to devastation — and expertly evokes the vagaries of Lev’s adolescence. Readers who look down on plot-driven fiction will learn something new, even if Benioff miscalculates with a too-neat resolution, which includes both a love interest and a coming-of-age challenge. But if this is Benioff’s grandfather’s story, that’s the way it must have happened, right?

Who knows. In a recent interview, Benioff said the novel’s first chapter was pure invention — that all four of his grandparents were born in the United States. But in the bound galleys of the novel he thanked his grandfather for his “patience with my late-night phone calls” about the blockade. The final version of the book doesn’t carry that acknowledgment. What gives?

In its own modest way, “City of Thieves” becomes a commentary on the literary rigidities of our day. James Frey and Margaret B. Jones — gifted storytellers who, perhaps cravenly, mislabeled their work as nonfiction — are eviscerated in the same court of public opinion that venerates apple-cheeked first-timers who transcribe every heartbeat of their suburban youth but have the moxie to call it fiction. Benioff’s opening chapter, “true” or not, is a gentle reminder that fiction is often nonfiction warped by artifice, and that nonfiction is unavoidably a reinvention of what actually happened. In exposing these seams — God bless his editor for leaving in that chapter — Benioff reminds us what a beautifully ambiguous world we live in.

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