David BENIOFF'S second novel (after "The 25th Hour," which Spike Lee directed for the screen) features a snappy plot, a buoyant friendship, a quirky courtship, an assortment of menacing bad guys, an atmosphere that flickers between grainy realism and fairy-tale grotesquerie and a grim but irrepressible sense of humor. It imagines the absurdities and horrors endured by people caught in one of history's most lethal moments. Really, everything a reader could hope for in a buddy story set during the German army's siege of Leningrad during World War II. How is it possible, then, that "City of Thieves" left me so thoroughly and discouragingly unmoved?
"You have never been so hungry; you have never been so cold," reads the opening line of Chapter 1, and believe me, I was ready to share all the epic wartime fear and wretchedness that Benioff has to offer, was keen to sneak behind enemy lines through frostbitten Soviet woods along with Lev, the book's teenage narrator. Instead, I remained in my sunny kitchen in the Valley with a nice plate of hummus. Most likely this was not the transporting outcome the author had anticipated.
Even before that first chapter, Benioff delivers the framing device that begins the process of distancing his audience. In the prologue, it's the present day, and an L.A. screenwriter named David has little to say for himself when asked to contribute an autobiographical essay to a trade magazine.
"I realized I had led an intensely dull life," writes this preliminary narrator, who's in his mid-30s. (He should in no way be mistaken for the real-life Benioff, who writes screenplays as well as fiction and whose film credits include "Troy" and "The Kite Runner.") The narrator's Russian-born grandfather, on the other hand, has some tantalizing stories about World War II. Armed with a tape recorder and bent on gathering material for his essay, David wrests the old man's history from him: "I didn't want to write about my life, not even for five hundred words. I wanted to write about Leningrad."
Off we go, then, on a tour into the haunted theme park of modern European history. It is January 1942, the first winter of what would become a 900-day siege, and David's grandfather, Lev Beniov, at that time a skinny 17-year-old, is trying to survive on his own. Lev's mother and sister left Leningrad before the Germans closed in; his father, a Jewish poet, had been arrested by the Soviet secret police four years earlier and was never heard from again. After looting the corpse of a German soldier, Lev himself is arrested and thrown into the city's huge and silent prison, where he expects to be killed. His cellmate, Kolya, is an insouciant Cossack full of literary pretensions and braggadocio who is in jail for deserting his regiment.
To their infinite surprise, the two young men are sent on a mission instead of being executed. A local army colonel whose daughter is getting married surmises that Lev and Kolya are schooled enough in petty thievery to procure a dozen eggs for the wedding cake. No matter that eggs have not been seen anywhere in Leningrad in months. The lads are given five days, a curfew waiver, and 400 rubles and told that if they fail to deliver the goods, they will be shot.
Talk about your wild goose chase. There are no animals of any kind here; even the pigeons have long since been eaten. In the outdoor food stalls, what's for sale are pricey glasses of dirt mixed with melted sugar and something called "library candy," made by boiling the binding glue from books: "[T]here was protein in the glue, protein kept you alive, and the city's books were disappearing like the pigeons."
As if caught in a nightmarish folk tale, Lev and Kolya chase rumors of eggs but find only a series of bleak and mostly gruesome dead-ends. At last they decide to leave Leningrad, their "city of ghosts and cannibals," to search for a poultry collective in the countryside behind German lines. Deep in the freezing woods, they fall in with a group of partisans whose best sniper, a wolfish red-headed girl, becomes an object of lustful obsession for Lev, and they vow to help the partisans hunt down a local leader of the Einsatzgruppen, or Nazi death squads.
It's a good story, as I mentioned, although the tracks in this snow are not exactly fresh. We've seen that folk tale imagery before in Jonathan Safran Foer's "Everything Is Illuminated" and Judy Budnitz's "If I Told You Once," among others. There is also a climactic chess game that recalls several Holocaust novels, including Icchokas Meras' "Stalemate" and Paolo Maurensig's "The Luneberg Variation." These echoes aren't unduly distracting, though. Benioff has come a long way since "The 25th Hour," which never managed to escape its debts to other novelists, particularly Richard Price.
What does distract ruinously from the power of "City of Thieves" is the barrier between its characters' emotions and the reader's. "The imminence of death did not frighten me as much as it should have," Lev admits near the book's end. " . . . I was too exhausted, too hungry, to feel anything with proper intensity." It is this numbness, more than anguish or fear, that the reader shares with Lev; and without our ability to be moved by his predicament, this well-crafted tale about the endless opportunities for suffering weakens into a harmless entertainment.