Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Book
At the age of thirty-four, David, an Los Angelesbased screenwriter
specializing in mutant superhero films, is asked to write an autobiographical
piece for a trade magazine. Unable to muster any enthusiasm for his easy and
undeniably pleasant American youth, he hops on a Florida-bound plane to
interview his Russian grandfather about life in Leningrad during World War II.
Mild-mannered Lev Beniov is reputedby unspoken family loreto have killed two
Nazis in a knife fight that cost him a single fingertip. David asks to hear the
true story, so Lev reaches into the distant past to share the horrors,
privations, and adventures that the famously besieged city offered one young boy
on the brink of manhood.
A Jew and the son of a poet who was "disappeared" by the NKVD (the Soviet secret
police), Lev was nonetheless an ardent patriot who believed in the justness of
the Soviet cause and enough of a naïf to still believe in the romance of war.
Although too young to join the army, Lev refused to flee with his mother and
sister, and proudly serves as commander of his apartment building's volunteer
fire brigade. "I was seventeen, flooded with a belief in my own heroic destiny,"
(p. 9) he remembers. But his youth might still have passed uneventfully had a
dead Nazi paratrooper not fallen onto his street one night. Lev and his
friendstempted by the prospect of chocolate or other contrabandbreak curfew to
loot the body.
Lev alone is caught, arrested, and thrown into Leningrad's infamous prison, the
Crosses. His cellmate, Kolya, is a soldier who's just been arrested for
desertion and together the two await the dawn and almost certain execution. Lev
is petrified, but Kolya is everything that Lev is not; boisterous and bombastic,
handsome and charming, and annoyingly optimistic. "They're not preserving us for
the night just to shoot us tomorrow," (p. 23) Kolya says as he drops off into a
seemingly untroubled sleep. Miraculously, he is right. In the morning, the two
are granted a reprieve conditional upon their acquiring a dozen eggs for the
wedding cake of a powerful NKVD colonel's daughter within five days.
The task is preposterous. It is Januarysmack in the cold heart of a harsh
Soviet winterand the city has been cut off from all supplies for months. Most
of Leningrad barely staves off starvation with miserly portions of
sawdust-filled ration bread, but Lev and Kolya gamely set off to find their
grail in a city where rats are hunted for their meat and the bindings of library
books are boiled down for their nutrient-rich glue.
At first, Lev loathes Kolya, who teases him about being a Jew and whose every
word and action he finds insufferable. Yet as they wend their way through
Leningrad's black market underbelly and out into the battle-ravaged countryside,
the timid, virginal Jew and his Cossack antithesis reveal themselves in ways
that allow chinks of sympathyand, ultimately, friendshipto grow.
A beguiling new novel from the acclaimed author and screenwriter of The 25th
Hour, City of Thieves
is a winning picaresque tale that illuminates the
timeless struggles of growing up against the dramatic backdrop of Germany's
invasion of the Soviet Union.
- David wants to hear about his grandfather's experiences firsthand. Why
is it important for us to cultivate and preserve our oral histories? Do you
have a relative or friend whose story you believe should be captured for
- Lev's father is takenand almost certainly killedby the NKVD, yet Lev
himself stays behind to defend Leningrad. How do you think he reconciled his
patriotism to his love for his father?
- In the midst of a major historical moment, Lev is preoccupied with
thoughts of food and sex. What does this tell us about experiencing history
as it unfolds?
- From the cannibals in the market to the sex slaves in the farmhouse,
there are numerous illustrations of the way in which war robs us of our
humanity. In your opinion, what was the most poignant example of this and
- Kolya tells Lev that the government should "put the famous on the front
lines" (p. 67) rather than use them as the spokespeople for patriotic
propaganda. Do you agree or disagree? Can you think of any contemporary
instances of this practice?
- Aside from the sly pride that Lev notices, are there any other clues
that give Kolya away as the true author of The Courtyard Hound?
- Do you think Markov's denouncer should have remained silent about the
partisan's presence? Did either of them deserve to die?
- Even moments before Lev pulls his knife on the Sturmbannführer, he
thinks: "I had wanted him dead since I'd heard Zoya's story. . . . [But] I
didn't believe I was capable of murdering him" (p. 228). Do you think
everyonegiven the right motivationis capable of killing another human
being? Could you?
- Lev takes an instinctive dislike to Kolya yet comes to consider him his
best friend. What was the turning point in their relationship?
- Lev says that Vika "was no man's idea of a pinup girl," (p.149) but he
is instantly infatuated. Would he have been drawn to her had they met in
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Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.