During the siege of Leningrad, two young men, sentenced to hang for spurious crimes, are given a reprieve. One is the narrator, Lev Beniov (possibly the author’s grandfather but as with all novels, who knows or cares.) Lev is small, shy, terrified of girls and other figures of authority. Acting as his foil is his cellmate, Kolya, a brash, swashbuckling hero and a womanizer par excellence. They have five days to secure a dozen fresh eggs so that a colonel’s daughter might have a proper wedding cake. And so begins their quest through a starved city and behind enemy lines.
It’s a novel about deprivation and repression and the inanity of war. More importantly it’s a tale about friendship and the daily courage of making the right choice. But forget all those weighty themes and read it for Kolya.
He’s the larger-than-life character, throwing punches, diffusing confrontations, protecting the weak and cheerfully fornicating. To him are given the best lines I’ve heard in a loooong time. On his way to his execution, he instructs the drivers, “Gentlemen, to the opera!” Okay, perhaps you need to be there to get it. And really, you need to be.
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