Friday, November 4, 2016

Review: City of Thieves

City of Thieves City of Thieves by David Benioff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here’s a premise: the question of how we define masculinity is, in large part, a rewording of a deeper question – how can we show love for our fathers? That claim builds from a perspective that is both heteronormative and male, but grant me that much and see how wide it might reach.

Masculinity is culturally defined. I’ve always loved the legend of the meeting between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin. Richard, boasting of his strength, takes out his mighty sword and uses it to cleave an anvil. Saladin, standing nimbly before him, uses the razor-sharp edge of his blade to slice a piece of silk he’s let fall across it. Each of those attributes is a kind of masculinity, whether the Norman sense of the unassailable strong man or the Arabic sense of the lightning quick and wise warrior.

City of Thieves gives us two equally distinct visions of masculinity. There is Kolya, a handsome and able Aryan who lives his life unflappably. And there’s Lev, a big-nosed, neurotic Jewish young man who, always doubting himself, always rises to heroism. Lev may question himself at every turn, but he always carries himself as a man. At the beginning, he risks his life to save a friend. Throughout the middle, he proves an important and sober balance to Kolya’s impatience. And, at the end, well, [SPOILER] he kills the chief bad guy and gets the girl.

For me, then, this novel is most obviously a kind of wish fulfillment fantasy: it lays out the perfect scenario for Jewish masculinity, with all its flaws, to be the precise set of codes necessary for survival and eventually heroism. We come to like Kolya very much; he stands as one kind of masculine ideal. But Kolya’s excellence doesn’t overwhelm Lev’s. Instead, we see that it takes both masculinities – a more conventional (by American standards) masculinity and Lev’s Jewish one – for the partners to complete their mission.

If that isn’t clear before the end, well, the climax brings it home: how else can we understand the significance of the Jewish kid beating the vile Nazi at a game of chess? It’s the ultimate in “Is there a doctor in the house?” It’s like the high school tech nerd who, with the whole school watching, quick fixes the projector the principal needs in order to make possible the screening of some anticipated movie. It’s a contrived situation in which the boy’s particular skills – particular not just to him but to the culture in which he is emerging as masculine – are exactly what we need.

And it’s also wonderfully satisfying. If you forget this is a fantasy, then I can see how you might find it ahistorical or tone deaf. It’s not especially good history, nor is it emotionally true. Demanding such characteristics of it, though, is to misunderstand that this is a sustained wish projection. If noir is an interrogation of the codes by which a man should live in a world where there’s no reason to believe in a benign, ordered universe, then this is an exploration of the strength implicit in a stereotypical Jew’s qualities. It’s a reimagining of a dark time in such a way that a clever Jew can play a difficult and necessary tole in defeating the worst villains of the century. Lev wins because he is supposed to win, because the cards are stacked in his favor by our writer.

And Benioff does all that with good humor and excellent pacing. The subplot of Kolya’s counting the days since his last shit is funny and even joyful, and Lev’s sexual awakening is both tender and embarrassing. Reading this, I can see the sensibility that Benioff brings to his work on Game of Thrones. That too is a fantasy – a more apparent one – and Benioff invests it with many of the same concerns: its story line is also contrived, but there is room within it for a variety of masculinities to vie with one another. (In fact, that conflict between different cultures is the heart of Game of Thrones.)

It’s fair to add that, as with Danaerys, we also see how here how women can thrive in a masculine context. Vika ??? is, of course, not only the finest sharpshooter, she is also the finest partisan fighter and she is demonstrably more capable than either man. In this wish-projection world, she is the ultimate fantasy down to her taking time to wash and put on makeup when she returns to Lev in the closing pages. She excels at both the masculine and feminine codes, as both a model gentile in her fighting capacity and as a model Jewess in her eventual unveiling as David’s grandmother.

To return to my original point, though, I think this is not merely a fantasy of masculinity but also, as I suggest in my opening premise, an almost too-needy letter of affection to fathers. The back cover copy of my edition (well, the audiobook slug) makes a big deal about the idea that this is a novel written by a young man, David, from the recollections of his grandfather, that this is about David’s efforts to understand his grandfather’s experiences. And then, as Lev pursues his mission, he thinks fondly of his father, always measuring himself against the glimpses of literary greatness he still recalls.

That is, this is not merely an interrogation of masculinity but also a tribute to David’s forefathers. (Less so to his foremothers.) Yes it’s a fantasy, and yes it’s perpetually involved with how a boy is supposed to perform as a man, but there’s a sweetness in its almost transparent effort to embrace and even celebrate its fathers. This may not be literature for the ages, but it’s also something that works to break received conventions. It is perhaps too much fun to ring true as a history of Jews during the time of Hitler and Stalin, but it unfolds from that dark history into an imaginative space that offers a rare balance between poignancy, humor, suspense, and action.

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