Nothing is Illuminated
City of Thieves
David Benioff occupies a somewhat awkward place in the literary world. He released his first novel, The 25th Hour, to considerable praise, and then adapted it into a better-received Spike Lee joint. Since then, he has become one of Hollywood’s steady screenwriters, penning Troy, Stay, and most recently an adaptation of The Kite Runner. His latest novel, City of Thieves, feels like a movie cleverly and cynically disguised as a novel. During the siege of Leningrad, an improbable pair of protagonists named Lev and Kolya are thrown together in order to accomplish an absurd task that might, just maybe, allow them to survive the siege long enough to find a screenplay deal.
Their task will not be easy, however. Benioff’s Russia is a grotesque and dangerous place. In the city, a besieged Leningrad, dead men fall from the skies; apartments are populated by cannibals and corpses guarding chickens with shotguns; underground, people turn the glue from library books into candy bars. His bleak renderings of city life after order has broken down are the novel’s most engaging passages. After the collapse of authority, the city becomes a cold, mathematical place populated by shrewd dealers attempting to maximize their own chances of survival. It is a brutal, Darwinistic representation of desperation. The streets are empty except for the occasional passing of an army car. Life in Benioff’s Leningrad becomes vertical: during the day people descend into the munitions factories or into the city’s underground to exchange goods — the underground Leningrad is a cruel mirror-image of the pre-war social order as former urbanites find that their fine silver means little to the peasants who now control the food supply through a harsh barter system. At night, however, people return to their high-rise apartments, huddled together around rationed soup, hoping that the lights will last through the night’s bombing. Benioff’s strength lies in his ability to show the city as multilayered. In showing humanity at its best and worst, Benioff creates a city that seems to buzz from a thousand different sources.
In this enormous cacophony, surrounded by ominous history, Benioff’s characters have a singularly absurd and inane task: to find a dozen eggs for an NKVD colonel’s daughter’s wedding cake. At first, the premise seems engaging in a wonderfully absurd way. One of the novel’s best scenes has the protagonists scouring an apartment for an old man guarding a chicken coop with a shotgun. What they find instead is the man’s grandson, guarding the last feeble bird and too mentally and physically deteriorated to mind the rotting corpse of his grandfather nearby. Lev and Kolya abscond with the bird, and wonder aloud how they might make Darling lay eggs. When they find out that Darling is in fact a rooster, the irony is both funny and heart-rending.
Outside the city limits, however, the buzz of the novel’s first half fades away, leaving the reader with Lev and Kolya, who are much less dynamic and interesting than the city that spawned them, even with the added color of a group of Soviet partisans to aid in their search. Extra biographical information appears on schedule, but the characters never attempt to complicate their roles. Everyone serves a clearly-defined role in what is essentially Benioff’s buddy movie script. Lev remains likeable but needs to learn how to be brave because Kolya is too charming to make it to the last chapter and someone has to marry the sassy partisan sniper.
On the surface, Benioff’s Russia resembles Jonathan Safran Foer’s Ukraine in Everything Is Illuminated. Both settings are full of dream- (and occasionally nightmare-) like imagery. Characters in the background appear to have walked out of a twisted, violent fable. In Everything Is Illuminated, the combining of the allegorical and the unmistakably real creates a discomforting but also exhilarating tension that holds together because the novel’s shifting perspective prevents the reader from establishing a reliable vantage point from which to view Foer’s world. Benioff’s arrangement however, relies on Lev as a single, persistent narrator, and the novel suffers from it. What was intoxicatingly ambiguous in Foer’s work just seems contrived here. Even the cannibals that Lev and Kolya encounter in their search for eggs feel misplaced in the world Benioff has outlined.
When the giant closed the door, the sheet billowed like a woman’s dress in the wind … Maybe for half a second I thought it was a pig, maybe my brain tried to convince my eyes that they weren’t looking at what they were looking at: a flayed thigh that could only be a woman’s thigh, a child’s rib cage, a severed arm with the hand’s ring finger missing.
The knife was in my hand before I realized I wanted it — something moved behind me and I wheeled around and slashed, crying out, unable to form any words, throat constricted. The giant had pulled a foot-long section of steel pipe from his coat; he danced away from me, far quicker than a man that big should be, easily dodging the German steel.
There is a serious disconnect in Benioff’s presentation. His description of “slabs of white meat hanging from hooks…with plastic sheeting on the floor to collect the drippings” is grotesque and disturbing but deserves credit for being in line with Benioff’s conception of the city. The description that follows, however, gives pause. The interaction moves from being a course, rough interaction to something resembling ballet. Everyone acts a little quicker and smoother than they should, as if they’re enacting a previously-rehearsed routine. The result is a calculated suspense that gives the audience in the theater exactly what they want to see, but which confuses the invested reader who knows how much messier it should have been.
City of Thieves is a smooth-running machine covered in grease. The plot is straightforward and sentences slide into one another effortlessly; you could read this book in your sleep. The novel’s introduction exists to pose a set of loose-ends and questions which Benioff will deftly wrap up by the novel’s end — after a second glance, what detail or sentence of the opening is not visited in due course? This gives the novel a feeling of tidiness that only makes it seem more contrived. The secondary function of the introduction is to raise a few questions of form and genre — is this a novel or a memoir? How much does the author of the prologue resemble David Benioff? These are questions whose answers illuminate nothing about the novel. Rather, they come across as a calculated attempt to make the text richer, more literary. The careful reader should feel insulted.
Justin Keenan ’10 got purged.