Friday, July 31, 2009

Russian Coincidence

I am currently reading “The Madonnas of Leningrad” (see Dorothea's blog) for our Book Club in August, a story that takes place during the siege of Leningrad. But I always like to have at least two books going at once, so if I get bogged down or bored by one I can switch to the other. So I picked a second book by a roundabout method. I loved the movie “The 25th Hour”, a gritty story set in New York directed by Spike Lee with a great performance by Edward Norton. The movie was based on David Benioff's book, and Benioff also wrote the screenplay. So I chose his latest book City of Thieves, thinking it would be another gritty, urban story. And in a way it is. But the city is not New York, and the time is not the present. The city of thieves in the title is ...Leningrad and the time is 1941. What are the odds?

City of Thieves is sort of the novelistic equivalent of a 'buddy movie'. But in a good way. The unlikely buddies are Lev, a scrawny Jewish seventeen-year-old who has remained in the embattled city in the hopes of defending his country and proving his manhood, and Kolya, a handsome, boastful, charismatic Red Army soldier who looks like an Aryan poster boy. They meet in a jail cell where both fear they are about to be executed. But instead their lives are spared and they are given a perilous assignment by the secret police. Their task will take them from the dangerous streets of Leningrad to even greater danger behind enemy lines. There are gun battles, close calls, brutality, struggles against the relentless cold of the Russian winter, a high stakes chess game. Does this sound grim? Actually, it's not. In fact there are parts, especially in the dialog between Lev and Kolya, that are downright funny.

Benioff is a terrific story-teller. You barely have time to catch your breath after one close call before you're hurtled into the next one. But he also captures well the conflicting emotions of Lev, who narrates the tale, as he comes to grips with his fears, his curiosity and his grudging bond with Kolya. This book is a little dark to recommend as a 'beach read', although the descriptions of long,cold marches through the snowy Russian forests might cool you off on hot day. But I can definitely recommend it as a fast-moving, page-turning thriller with sharp insights on the complex bonds of friendship.

No comments:

Post a Comment