It is said that there are two basic plots: a person goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town. This is a man, or rather two men, on a journey through the cold in starving St. Petersburg during the siege of that city by the Germans in 1941, when slabs of human flesh were available in the market, after all the rats were gone.
Given the desperate situations encountered in the book, the premise is whimsical: the Russian general’s comely daughter is going to be married the following week, and the general wants a wedding cake, but there are no eggs. Two men, the author’s grandfather and another man named Kolya, take on the assignment of finding two dozen eggs in exchange for their lives after they commit minor crimes.
The charm of the book lies in the voice of the narrator. The author has taken his grandfather’s story as told to him, and turned it into a story. The depravity and suffering he encounters, and the air and snow so cold that toes and lives can be easily lost, could be considered fantastical nightmares not bearing close examination, but given the matter-of-fact, teenage mind telling the story, they all fall into place. I found myself thinking yes, this could have happened. If anything, Grandpa may have avoided telling of even worse deprivations and cruelty.
City of Thieves resembles two other books I have recently read: Suite Française, which tells the story of the panicky exodus from Paris when the Germans threaten the city, after which the French realize it had not been necessary to leave after all; and Matterhorn, the story of a group of god-forsaken American Marines in Vietnam who take a hill only to leave it to the enemy after it is captured. The two boy-men in City of Thieves go through similar hell to capture two dozen eggs. It is, you see, the oh-so-familiar plaint about the exploitation of the helpless, of the lengths to which human beings will go in order to survive, and the surprisingly optimistic revelation that a person can remain almost dead for a very long time. It makes my worries about a mole I hadn’t noticed before or a missed meal seem self-indulgent.
The cover blurb, written by Kathryn Stockett, the author of The Help, is “The perfect novel.” I wouldn’t go that far, but it is a well written story with engaging characters, a well drawn historical setting, and little superfluous flimflam.
In these days of impending Armageddon, it is worthy of contemplation to wonder if I could be as resourceful and brave as the Russians in this book. Have I become so spoiled by warmth (and air conditioning) and ease that I would soon be dead under such circumstances? How many risks would I be willing to take to find an egg for my family? How could I weather the grief?
But seriously, it’s a good read.