City of thieves, p.1
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       City of Thieves, p.1

           David Benioff
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City of Thieves


  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Copyright Page

  Dedication

  Epigraph

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Acknowledgements

  Also by David Benioff

  When the Nines Roll Over

  The 25th Hour

  VIKING

  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street,

  New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.

  Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto,

  Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)

  Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  Penguin Ireland, 25 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland

  (a division of Penguin Books Ltd)

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  New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd)

  Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue,

  Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

  Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  First published in 2008 by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

  Copyright © David Benioff, 2008

  All rights reserved

  Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA

  Benioff, David

  City of thieves: a novel / David Benioff.

  p. cm.

  eISBN : 978-0-670-01870-3

  1. Grandparent and child—Fiction. 2. Reminiscing in old age—Fiction.

  3. Russians—United States—Fiction. 4. Saint Petersburg (Russia)—History—

  Siege, 1941-1944. 5. Domestic fiction. [1. Survival—Fiction.] I. Title.

  PS3552.E54425C58 2008

  813’ .54—dc22 2007042784

  Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

  The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrightable materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

  http://us.penguingroup.com

  For Amanda & Frankie

  and if the City falls but a single man escapes he will carry the City within himself on the roads of exile he will be the City

  Zbigniew Herbert

  At last Schenk thought he understood and began laughing louder. Then suddenly he asked in a serious tone, “Do you think that the Russians are homosexuals?”

  “You’ll find out at the end of the war,” I replied.

  Curzio Malaparte

  My grandfather, the knife fighter, killed two Germans before he was eighteen. I don’t remember anyone telling me—it was something I always seemed to know, the way I knew the Yankees wore pinstripes for home games and gray for the road. But I wasn’t born with the knowledge. Who told me? Not my father, who never shared secrets, or my mother, who shied away from mentioning the unpleasant, all things bloody, cancerous, or deformed. Not my grandmother, who knew every folktale from the old country— most of them gruesome; children devoured by wolves and beheaded by witches—but never spoke about the war in my hearing. And certainly not my grandfather himself, the smiling watchman of my earliest memories, the quiet, black-eyed, slender man who held my hand as we crossed the avenues, who sat on a park bench reading his Russian newspaper while I chased pigeons and harassed sugar ants with broken twigs.

  I grew up two blocks from my grandparents and saw them nearly every day. They had their own small insurance company, working out of their railroad apartment in Bay Ridge, catering primarily to other Russian immigrants. My grandmother was always on the phone, selling. No one could resist her. She charmed them or she frightened them, and either way, they bought. My grandfather manned the desk, doing all the paperwork. When I was small, I would sit on his lap, staring at the stump of his left index finger, rounded and smooth, the top two knuckles so cleanly severed it seemed he’d been born without them. If it was summer and the Yankees were playing, a radio (after his seventieth birthday, a color television my dad bought him) broadcast the game. He never lost his accent, he never voted in an election or listened to American music, but he became a devout Yankees fan.

  In the late nineties, an insurance conglomerate made an offer for my grandparents’ company. It was, according to everyone, a fair offer, so my grandmother asked them to double it. There must have been a good deal of haggling, but I could have told the conglomerate that haggling with my grandmother was a waste of time. In the end they gave her what she wanted and my grandparents, following tradition, sold their apartment and moved to Florida.

  They bought a small house on the Gulf Coast, a flat-roofed masterpiece built in 1949 by an architect who would have become famous if he hadn’t drowned the same year. Stark and majestic in steel and poured concrete, sitting on a solitary bluff overlooking the Gulf, it is not the house you’d imagine for a retired couple, but they didn’t move south to wither in the sun and die. Most days my grandfather sits at his computer, playing chess online with old friends. My grandmother, bored by inactivity within weeks of the move, created a job for herself at a commuter college in Sarasota, teaching Russian literature to tanned students who seem (based on my one classroom visit) constantly alarmed by her profanity, her heavy sarcasm, and her word-perfect memory of Pushkin’s verse.

  Every night my grandparents eat dinner on the deck of their house, looking out over the dark waters toward Mexico. They sleep with the windows open, the moths battering their wings against the mesh screens. Unlike the other retirees I’ve met in Florida, they’re not worried about crime. The front door is usually unlocked and there is no alarm system. They don’t wear their seat belts in the car; they don’t wear suntan lotion in the sun. They have decided nothing can kill them but God himself, and they don’t even believe in him.

  I live in Los Angeles and write screenplays about mutant super-heroes. Two years ago I was asked to write an autobiographical essay for a screenwriting magazine, and midway through I realized I had led an intensely dull life. Not that I’m
complaining. Even if the summary of my existence makes boring reading—school, college, odd jobs, graduate school, odd jobs, more graduate school, mutant superheroes—I’ve had a good time existing. But as I struggled through the essay I decided I didn’t want to write about my life, not even for five hundred words. I wanted to write about Leningrad.

  My grandparents picked me up at the Sarasota airport; I stooped to kiss them and they smiled up at me, always slightly bemused in the presence of their giant American grandson (at six foot two I’m a giant next to them). On the way home we bought pompano at the local fish market; my grandfather grilled it adding nothing but butter, salt, and fresh lemon. Like every dish he made, it seemed incredibly easy to do, took him ten minutes, and tasted better than anything I’d eaten that year in LA. My grandmother doesn’t cook; she is famous in our family for her refusal to prepare anything more complicated than a bowl of cereal.

  After dinner my grandmother lit a cigarette and my grandfather poured three glasses of homemade black currant vodka. We listened to a choir of cicadas and crickets, stared out at the black Gulf, and slapped away the occasional mosquito.

  “I brought a tape recorder with me. I thought maybe we could talk about the war.”

  I thought I caught my grandmother rolling her eyes as she flicked her ash onto the grass.

  “What?”

  “You’re forty years old. Now you want to know?”

  “I’m thirty-four.” I looked at my grandfather and he smiled at me. “What’s the matter? You guys were Nazis? You’re hiding your Nazi past?”

  “No,” he said, still smiling. “We weren’t Nazis.”

  “You thought I was forty years old?”

  “Thirty-four, forty—” She made her pshh sound, always accompanied by a dismissive wave of the hand, slapping away the stupidity. “Who cares? Get married. Find a wife.”

  “You sound like every other grandmother in Florida.”

  “Ha,” she said, a little wounded.

  “I want to know what it was like. What’s so horrible about that?”

  She nodded at my grandfather while pointing the burning tip of her cigarette at me.

  “He wants to know what it was like.”

  “Darling,” said my grandfather. Just that, nothing else, but my grandmother nodded and stubbed out her cigarette on the glass-top table.

  “You’re right,” she told me. “You want to write about the war, you should.”

  She stood, kissed me on the top of my head, kissed my grandfather on the lips, and carried the dishes inside the house. For a few minutes we sat there quietly, listening to the waves breaking. He poured us fresh vodkas, happy to see I’d finished mine.

  “You have a girlfriend?”

  “Uh-huh.”

  “The actress?”

  “Yeah.”

  “I like her.”

  “I know you do.”

  “She could be Russian,” he said. “She has the eyes. . . . If you want to talk about Leningrad, we talk about Leningrad.”

  “I don’t want to talk. I want you to talk.”

  “So, OK, I’ll talk. Tomorrow?”

  He kept his word. For the next week we sat together every day on the concrete deck and I recorded his stories. A few hours in the morning, breaking for lunch, then again in the afternoon—my grandfather, a man who hated to speak more than two consecutive sentences in mixed company (meaning in the company of anyone other than his wife), filled minicassette after minicassette with his words. Too many words for one book—truth might be stranger than fiction, but it needs a better editor. For the first time in my life I heard my grandfather curse and speak openly about sex. He talked about his childhood, about the war, about coming to America. But mostly he talked about one week in 1942, the first week of the year, the week he met my grandmother, made his best friend, and killed two Germans.

  When he was finished telling his stories, I questioned him about various details—names, locations, weather conditions on certain days. He tolerated this for a while, but eventually he leaned forward and pressed the Stop button on the tape recorder.

  “It was a long time ago,” he said. “I don’t remember what I was wearing. I don’t remember if the sun came out.”

  “I just want to make sure I get everything right.”

  “You won’t.”

  “This is your story. I don’t want to fuck with it.”

  “David—”

  “A couple of things still don’t make sense to me—”

  “David,” he said. “You’re a writer. Make it up.”

  1

  You have never been so hungry; you have never been so cold. When we slept, if we slept, we dreamed of the feasts we had carelessly eaten seven months earlier—all that buttered bread, the potato dumplings, the sausages—eaten with disregard, swallowing without tasting, leaving great crumbs on our plates, scraps of fat. In June of 1941, before the Germans came, we thought we were poor. But June seemed like paradise by winter.

  At night the wind blew so loud and long it startled you when it stopped; the shutter hinges of the burned-out café on the corner would quit creaking for a few ominous seconds, as if a predator neared and the smaller animals hushed in terror. The shutters themselves had been torn down for firewood in November. There was no more scrap wood in Leningrad. Every wood sign, the slats of the park benches, the floorboards of shattered buildings—all gone and burning in someone’s stove. The pigeons were missing, too, caught and stewed in melted ice from the Neva. No one minded slaughtering pigeons. It was the dogs and cats that caused trouble. You would hear a rumor in October that someone had roasted the family mutt and split it four ways for supper; we’d laugh and shake our heads, not believing it, and also wondering if dog tasted good with enough salt—there was still plenty of salt, even when everything else ran out we had salt. By January the rumors had become plain fact. No one but the best connected could still feed a pet, so the pets fed us.

  There were two theories on the fat versus the thin. Some said those who were fat before the war stood a better chance of survival: a week without food would not transform a plump man into a skeleton. Others said skinny people were more accustomed to eating little and could better handle the shock of starvation. I stood in the latter camp, purely out of self-interest. I was a runt from birth. Big nosed, black haired, skin scribbled with acne—let’s admit I was no girl’s idea of a catch. But war made me more attractive. Others dwindled as the ration cards were cut and cut again, halving those who looked like circus strongmen before the invasion. I had no muscle to lose. Like the shrews that kept scavenging while the dinosaurs toppled around them, I was built for deprivation.

  On New Year’s Eve I sat on the rooftop of the Kirov, the apartment building where I’d lived since I was five (though it had no name until ’34, when Kirov was shot and half the city was named after him), watching the fat gray antiaircraft blimps swarm under the clouds, waiting for the bombers. That time of year the sun lingers in the sky for only six hours, scurrying from horizon to horizon as if spooked. Every night four of us would sit on the roof for a three-hour shift, armed with sand pails, iron tongs, and shovels, bundled in all the shirts and sweaters and coats we could find, watching the skies. We were the firefighters. The Germans had decided rushing the city would be too costly, so instead they encircled us, intending to starve us out, bomb us out, burn us out.

  Before the war began eleven hundred people lived in the Kirov. By New Year’s Eve the number was closer to four hundred. Most of the small children were evacuated before the Germans closed the circle in September. My mother and little sister, Taisya, went to Vyazma to stay with my uncle. The night before they left I fought with my mother, the only fight we’d ever had—or, more precisely, the only time I ever fought back. She wanted me to go with them, of course, far away from the invaders, deep into the heart of the country where the bombers couldn’t find us. But I wasn’t leaving Piter. I was a man, I would defend my city, I would be a Nevsky for the twentieth centur
y. Perhaps I wasn’t quite this ridiculous. I had a real argument: if every able-bodied soul fled, Leningrad would fall to the Fascists. And without Leningrad, without the City of Workers building tanks and rifles for the Red Army, what chance did Russia have?

  My mother thought this was a stupid argument. I was barely seventeen. I didn’t weld armor at the Works and I couldn’t enlist in the army for close to a year. The defense of Leningrad had nothing to do with me; I was just another mouth to feed. I ignored these insults.

  “I’m a firefighter,” I told her, because it was true, the city council had ordered the creation of ten thousand firefighting units, and I was the proud commander of the Kirov Fifth-Floor Brigade.

  My mother wasn’t forty years old, but her hair was already gray. She sat across from me at the kitchen table, holding one of my hands in both of hers. She was a very small woman, barely five feet tall, and I had been afraid of her from birth.

  “You are an idiot,” she told me. Maybe this sounds insulting, but my mother always called me “her idiot” and by that point I thought of it as an affectionate nickname. “The city was here before you. It will be here after you. Taisya and I need you.”

  She was right. A better son would have gone with her, a better brother. Taisya adored me, jumped on me when I came home from school, read me the silly little poems she wrote as homework to honor martyrs of the revolution, drew caricatures of my big-nosed profile in her notebook. Generally, I wanted to strangle her. I had no desire to tramp across the country with my mother and kid sister. I was seventeen, flooded with a belief in my own heroic destiny. Molotov’s declaration during his radio address on the first day of the war (OUR CAUSE IS JUST! THE ENEMY WILL BE BEATEN! WE SHALL TRIUMPH!) had been printed on thousands of posters and pasted on the city’s walls. I believed in the cause; I would not flee the enemy; I would not miss out on the triumph.

 
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