by David Benioff, Penguin, 2008
The siege of Leningrad. Who can bear to pick up a book on that subject? And yet – the book came highly recommended, so I picked up a copy on one of my too frequent visits at the bookstore. I’ve read. It is exquisitely written – and it is important. As is every single book that reminds us that war is hell on earth.
David Benioff leads us in gently. The novel’s opening chapter has a screen writer (David) interviewing his grandfather (Lev Beniov) about the war years he never talks about. (The similarity in the names has raised the question of whether this novel is based on a true story.) His grandfather doesn’t want to remember, but his grandson is persistent. And so in the second chapter the old man’s story begins.
The setting is Leingrad (or the city of Piter/Peter as the natives still prefer to call it, affectionately.) in 1942. Lev’s mother and sister have fled the city but he has refused to accompany them. Fifteen years old he wants to be a hero, defend his city to the death if necessary. Each night he and a few of his friends sit on the roof of their apartment building, ready to raise an alarm if they see Germans approaching.
One night they do. Though what they see a German paratrooper fall from the sky. They are pretty sure he is already dead. The man is not moving legs or arms in order to navigate his landing. So they swarm down to see what they can scavenge, from the body. They are all of them starving. Hoping for a bit of chocolate, a canteen of alcohol, warm boots, socks, gloves, anything that might be useful or used for barter. But this scavenging is forbidden. The penalty – an immediate bullet to the head. Soldiers catch them in the act and they run. All of them escape except Lev, because he has made the fatal mistake of turning back to help a friend who had not made it over the wall. The friend escapes but Lev is caught.
He expects to die, but they do not shoot him. There is a high-powered Russian commander in charge of the city’s prison who has need of just such a “thief.” He needs him to find a dozen eggs for his daughter’s wedding.
You shake your head. You think – take us through the siege of Leningrad through the eyes of a fifteen year old looking for eggs? Yes. And it’s gift. The task provides the levity that allows us to keep reading. And to keep hoping.