I am one of those strange, possibly disturbed human beings who enjoys reading the literature of extremity. I wrote a college thesis on Holocaust testimonies; I’m teaching a class right now on Holocaust literature, art, and film; and the thing is, I like a lot of the literature, art, and film I teach. I enjoy it. Plenty has been written about the ethics of beauty in Holocaust literature and art and the dilemmas inherent in enjoying, or making enjoyable, this kind of representation. I’m not particularly interested in weighing in on that question here (or anywhere), partly because I’m unqualified to do so, as someone with only a cursory knowledge of the philosophical underpinnings of such arguments, but also because – and perhaps, again, this means I am a VERY SICK PERSON – I am more interested in why I love this literature and what is beautiful, redeeming, or holy about it.
David Benioff’s City of Thieves is bold in that it sets a charming picaresque story of friendship and love against the backdrop of the siege of Leningrad and the Nazi occupation of the Soviet Union during World War II. I’ve been interested in Holocaust literature and World War II for about 20 years, and yet until I picked up Benioff’s book I don’t think I had given more than a passing thought to the siege of Leningrad. This, I now know, was a mistake, because it is a tremendously troubling yet fascinating episode in the history of the war, and, I think, the Holocaust, since the Nazis thought of the Soviets (and Slavs generally) as something less than fully human, and their intent was probably to wipe out the entire population of the city (along with most of the rest of the USSR). Fun facts: the siege of Leningrad lasted almost 900 days (that’s two and a half years); somewhere between 600,000 and a million civilians – enough to populate a good-sized city of the dead – died during the siege; in the period covered by the novel, in January 1942, 700-1000 people died every day, most from starvation or cold. These are shocking, mind-blowing, unbelievable numbers, so large and incomprehensible that comfortable people with gas heat and full refrigerators cannot easily assimilate their meaning. This incomprehensibility carries with it the danger of being, in our very inability to imagine it, “obliterated,” as Georges Didi-Huberman has noted. He admonishes us that we must not fall prey to our own claims of unimaginability: “We are obliged to that oppressive imaginable.”
And this is the redemptive power of the literature of extremity: it invites us, forces us, even, to fulfill our obligation to imagine what we routinely deem incomprehensible. Even more so a novel like City of Thieves, which offers its own imaginative and emotional pleasures despite realistically gruesome depictions of violence and death. There is nothing gratuitous in this novel, and, although I was skeptical at first of the opening chapter, nothing unnecessary. That first chapter contains a brief frame story, in which a young screenwriter from Los Angeles (Benioff is a young screenwriter from Los Angeles) named David Beniov (!) goes to interview his Russian immigrant grandparents about their lives for an article he’s writing. My hackles were immediately raised by this seemingly gratuitous (see above) and unnecessary (ibid.) postmodern trickery in an otherwise entirely conventionally narrated story. But as I read on I realized that this introduction quietly addresses some of the central questions of testimony and the nature of “truth.” As the David Beniov of the novel quizzes his grandfather Lev on minute details of his experience, explaining, “I just want to make sure I get everything right,” his grandfather assures him, “You won’t.” This acknowledgment of the unreliability of testimony and witness comes with an assurance that, in a sense, it doesn’t matter. There is truth in the telling, and perfect factual accuracy is impossible. There is no memory so flawless that testimony can be perfect, and yet, the novel suggests that even the fictionalized telling, the embellished tale, is true. “You’re a writer. Make it up,” the elderly Lev Beniov tells his grandson.
This license to “make it up” also cleverly explains the intricacy and detail of the description and dialogue that follows, which is a first-person account of the first week of January 1942, when the seventeen-year-old Lev Beniov is sent on a fool’s errand by an NKVD colonel. His companion in this adventure is his polar opposite, his foil, and later, his friend. The picaresque, popular two hundred years ago, is an underused form these days, and perfect for the whirlwind of horror that was the Second World War, in which nothing but luck ensured survival. The way Lev and his companion Kolya bounce from one harrowing situation to another – an encounter with cannibals, a partisan-Nazi shootout, a stint on a death march of Soviet POWs, among others – approximates the chaos and uncertainty of war, but also of the authoritarian regimes that were its principal antagonists. The absurd re-ordering of life occasioned by both the war and the Soviet or Nazi systems is embodied in the whimsy of the picaresque here, and the premise – that the two main characters can evade execution only through accomplishing an impossible task that will probably kill them – perfectly encapsulates the unanswerable questions, unresolvable dilemmas, and inconceivable choices so crucial to understanding the moral insensibility of the Holocaust.
Though the novel finds its focus in the developing friendship between Lev and Kolya, it does not shy away from the terror of the siege, millions of people trapped in a freezing city with few means of survival, or the atrocity of the war, with particular attention (justified, I think) to Nazi violence. Lev characterizes the kind of mindtrick Leningrad residents engaged in to survive: “You couldn’t let too much truth seep into your conversation, you couldn’t admit with your mouth what your eyes had seen.” But the book itself freely admits what it sees, and does not gloss either grim realities or extreme violence, describing it carefully and fully. One scene that becomes central to the plot is enough to induce nausea and nightmares, yet it is crucial both to the story and the setting. The novel is very conscious of the potentially troubling relationship between beauty and horror, pleasure and violence. Looking at a burning village, Lev thinks, “At a distance it seemed beautiful, and I thought it was strange that powerful violence is often so pleasing to the eye, like tracer bullets at night.” While the book rightly forces us to imagine the incomprehensible, it is also aware of the moral pitfalls of that very task.
In the end, despite what might have been too pat an ending that I nonetheless loved, I realized that the first chapter had yet another narrative purpose beyond foreshadowing and an internal justification of the genre. Though the frame story does not return, we realize that our introduction to the grandson, David, was essential to the completion of the story: he is the end of the real story, the witness and the legacy of his grandparents’ survival. He needn’t “make it up,” because he is it.