Tuesday, 1 July 2008
RUSSIA has been invaded by the Nazi armies, and Leningrad is surrounded by German troops.
Two teenagers, Lev and Kolya, are sent on an impossible quest – a dozen eggs for the wedding of a Party official’s daughter.
Lev’s been caught looting when he should have been on fire patrol. Kolya is a deserter.
Lev is a shy virgin, cracked about chess, and about his cello-playing neighbour. Kolya’s a sex-mad boy with a talent for talking his way out of trouble.
They’re sentenced to death, but the quest for the eggs is offered as an alternative.
They try in the city first. But this is a town where they’re melting down the glue in library books to sell as food.
The two boys escape from cannibals, track a legendary old man who’s supposed to be guarding a hen-coop on the roof of an apartment block.
Finally they escape the city – Piter, as it’s nicknamed by its inhabitants – knowing of the rumours that the peasants are living fat while Leningrad starves.
They discover a Nazi brothel full of plump girls held as slaves. They fall in with partisans – the most deadly of whom is a skinny girl sniper.
Kolya talks about all the sex he’s had, and adds endless literary criticism, especially of the great unknown novel The Courtyard Hound.
When he discovers that Lev’s father was a poet murdered by Stalin, their friendship is sealed.
Screenwriter Benioff uses his grandfather’s stories of life in wartime Russia to make a quirky and enticing novel.
From the cosy grandparents with their sinister history to the appealing Kolya and Lev, it’s a book to make you laugh when you’re not flinching.
Much better than his screenplays (Benioff worked on Troy and The Kite Runner), it’s touching and gritty.