There is a certain magic conjured as one reads David Benioff’s new novel, City of Thieves. Told from the perspective of a young man named Lev Beniov during the German's WWII siege of Leningrad, the prose continually has the character of the Russian language and culture. Though we know that Lev survives the story (how else would he relate it to us), there is a sense of foreboding the entire time, and though a very humorous book, the humor is all of the gallows variety.
I enjoyed the novel for these reasons, and many more, yet what has me filled with a certain glee is the nature of Benioff’s first chapter. The short piece is told from the perspective of Benioff, or at least a fictional version of himself, who is having issues writing a newspaper article about his life. He goes to see his grandparents in Florida and persuades his grandfather to tell him about his experiences in the war, where he killed two German soldiers with a knife. Reluctantly agreeing, he spends the rest of the week filling David’s micro-cassettes with his memories, but when repeatedly asked to clarify minor details, he turns to his grandson and says, ‘You’re a writer. Make it up.’
The second chapter begins with Lev’s recounting the circumstances that led to his killing of the German soldiers and the first meeting between he and his wife. The narrative goes into some improbable territory, and though labeled a novel one still wonders how much of it is true. I can’t believe that these events actually happened, but Benioff’s trickery makes me unable to believe they didn’t either. And somehow this makes it more fun. The wondering, the awe of the perfect execution.
In a day where James Frey is excoriated for fibbing a little is his memoir (as if it was some piece of journalism), it is refreshing to see someone play with those conventions. My first thoughts were of a cautious publisher labeling the narrative as fiction to prevent a similar occurrence, but the more I read the more it felt as though there were all sorts of layers between fiction and nonfiction here. There’s nothing wrong with that, in fact I prefer complexity and the refusal to be shoehorned to the ease with which we can catalogue so much these days.
And then I looked up Boris Fishman’s review in the New York Times. He reports that Benioff has claimed in interviews that the first chapter is pure invention, and that all four of his grandparents were born here in the US. And apparently the galley copies had an acknowledgement thanking his grandfather for the late night calls that is absent from the published version. The truth is more confusing than ever, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.
As Fishman says, City of Thieves becomes ‘a commentary on the literary rigidities of our day.’ By toying with conventions of both the novel and the memoir, Benioff reminds us that fiction is often the truth filtered through a prism, and nonfiction is fictional by the very nature of its retelling. A brilliant effort and highly recommended.