But I couldn't feel my fingertips even though I wore thick wool mittens and had shoved my hands into the pockets of my overcoat. Nor could I feel the tip of my nose. What a good joke that would be - I spent most of my adolescence wishing for a smaller nose; a few more hours in the woods and I wouldn't have a nose.
Somewhere in my reading journey, I seemed to have picked up a stereotype that screenwriters are poor novelists. I think it started with reading a book written by a screenwriter and finding it very immature. That was probably followed by a few other such books until this stereotype stuck in my head. One example that comes to mind is Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. That was one of the most exciting books I read in 2011 but it was also poorly written and clichéd. So when I came across David Benioff's City of Thieves, I was very hesitant to read it. I've been hearing about this book for years, ever since I started blogging. In those days, I wasn't aware that David Benioff is a screenwriter. It made its way into my TBR on the merit of its rave reviews (seriously, everyone loves it) and its unique premise (two guys forced to find eggs in war-torn Russia if they wished to stay alive). Every one I know has said that this book is a must-read, but I say the same thing too about Ready Player One.
Still, I decided I could sample a few chapters before coming to my aforethought conclusion that I was going to be proved right.
258 pages later, I was sitting in awe. Have I ever been so wrong? Probably.
City of Thieves is my read of the season. Set in wintry Russia, this book is filled with people who have barely anything to eat nor any decent shack to hide from the cold. To them, even the idea of eggs is a luxury. But when Lev and Kolya are caught, separately, by the Russian authorities - the former for stealing from a German corpse, and the latter for being a deserter, they are given a rare chance to save their lives. The Russian police is not usually that generous - severe physical labor or death are its usual verdicts, but a certain Colonel's daughter is going to get married soon, and war or no war, she wants the wedding of the century. Which means, cakes and pastries and what not, and plenty of eggs to save her day. That's Lev's and Kolya's homework - bring a dozen eggs in four days and walk away from prison like free men. As collateral, the Colonel keeps their ration cards with him.
Not that the idea of escape did not cross their minds. They could have walked away, maybe into another country, with new identities. But without their ration cards, they can only get so far. A letter signed by the Colonel will help in keeping them away from Russian authorities but other than that, they are on their own.
Over the next few days, Lev and Kolya see the best and worst that humanity has to offer. There is only so much generosity that a war-shattered human can offer, but some go out of their way to keep Lev and Kolya fed, even if that means somebody in their house will have to go hungry. But these vignettes are few and far between. Most of the time, horrors are what they see - from the couple that lures kids into their house, kills, and eats them, the dogs that are trained to run towards the enemy in anticipation of a hot meal only to trigger mines that rip apart their bodies (oh god, this broke my heart so much I had to stop reading the book for a while), to the girls whose families and fellow-villages were killed and made to prostitute themselves to a member of the Nazi death squad.
So much horror, and yet the horror isn't the final taste I walk away with. City of Thieves is an incredibly funny book. It's surprising when you can feel so much sorrow one minute and then laugh your guts out the very next. Lev and Kolya share a rare camaraderie that provides more than a few laughs for the reader. Lev has not slept with a girl yet, a fact that Kolya loves teasing him about. Kolya himself walks around quoting a certain writer that he considers very famous but Lev hasn't heard about. Kolya insists he is not a deserter but the story about how he came to be arrested is about as hilarious as it is ridiculous. David Benioff's characters come so vividly to life that it isn't hard to relate to them. Moreover, his writing is very beautiful as well as atmospheric. It isn't hard to feel the cold of the season or the fear of frostbite, the hunger gnawing your insides, or the deliciousness of stale bread or potatoes when you haven't had a bite in ages.
When this book begins, a man is trying to write a book and interviews his grandparents to learn more about their lives in Russia. Moreover, Lev has the same surname as the author's. That got me wondering how biographical this book could be, but a few interviews with this author squashed that thought down. I'm certainly disappointed that I ignored this book for so long, but I'm glad that I eventually read it. I'll admit that part of the allure of this book was the fact that Benioff is producing one of my favorite shows - Game of Thrones. It's certainly reassuring to know that he can write a book as well as he can produce a show.
I borrowed this books from the good old library.
Armchair reading in Russia