David, the narrator of the prologue, tells the reader that his grandfather (Lev) killed two Germans in a knife fight before he was 18, and that this knowledge is just something he knows, not anything he'd ever been told. He describes his grandfather as a small, quiet, smiling man. David grew up two blocks from his grandparents. They owned an insurance company. His grandmother sold on the phone while his grandfather did paperwork. In the late nineties, a large insurance conglomerate offered to purchase David's grandparents' company. David's grandmother asked the company to double their fair offer, and they eventually agreed. David's grandparents moved to Florida, where his grandfather spends his time playing chess on the computer and his grandmother teaches Russian Literature at the local community college. They're not worried about crime and believe that nothing can kill them.
The prologue about David operates as a frame story for the novel. This frame story ensures that, from the very beginning, the reader knows that Lev is alive and well and retired in Florida. Further, by capturing Lev in late adulthood and presenting him as quite normal, Benioff makes the story about Lev’s experiences during World War II seem even more wild, absurd, and fantastical—while also emphasizing that such crazy, shocking things can happen to normal people, thus making the craziness feel real. Chess is mentioned early on as something that David's grandfather enjoys and participates in, and it soon becomes a symbol to watch out for.
David tells the reader he lives in Los Angeles and writes screenplays about mutant superheroes. Two years ago he was asked to write an autobiographical essay, which he attempted to do, but then decided he'd rather write about Leningrad.
David's work is creating truly fantastical stories about superheroes. That he doesn’t want to write about himself but does want to write about Leningrad suggests that he is looking to write about a different sort of heroism – about real world heroism. And yet at the same time, his background as a writer of fantasies and difficulty writing autobiography suggests that the reader should question the relationship between fact and fiction in the novel.
David traveled to Florida where his grandfather and grandmother picked him up at the airport. His grandfather made dinner (his grandmother is famous for her refusal to cook). Sitting outside after dinner, David asks to talk about the war. His grandmother brushes him off, but David's grandfather agrees to talk about Leningrad. For the next week he fills numerous minicassettes with recollections of the war, despite hating to speak much in front of anyone other than his wife. At the end, David tries to ask clarifying questions, but his grandfather eventually instructs David to just make it up, since he's a writer.
It's stressed in the first chapter that David's grandfather (Lev) isn't particularly talkative around anyone other than his wife. This serves to make the reader interested in discovering how their relationship unfolded to begin with. When his grandfather instructs David to make it up, the reader is also essentially warned that the following story may or may not be entirely true, and is asked to question whether that matters or not. David’s grandmother’s refusal to cook also becomes an important plot point at the novel’s end.