From the opening framing device of the novel, in which David narrates how he came to interview Lev for the story that makes up most of the novel, storytelling, and by extension literature, are introduced as central ideas and concerns of the book. Storytelling is considered as it applies to local myth, family lore, and fairytales, while formal, published literature is explored in terms of power and censorship.
The novel begins with the fact that the author David's grandfather, Lev, is famous in the family for having killed two Nazis in a knife fight. The power of this knowledge as family lore leads into questions about truth, fiction, and the power of storytelling. When the elderly Lev grows tired of answering his grandson's clarifying questions about the siege, he instructs David to simply make things up. This allows the reader to wonder which elements of the story that follows are true or not, highlighting the strangeness of truth and the importance of fiction. These ideas work throughout the rest of the novel to heighten the absurdity and dreamlike quality of the events and the narration.
In a similar vein, viewing the world through a lens of fiction and fairytale is one way that the teenage Lev attempts to make sense of the horrors taking place around him. As things that seemed once to be relegated to the world of fiction become reality, like cannibals and an absurd quest for impossible-to-find eggs, the narration shifts more and more to an engagement with events as though the characters are simply existing in a very strange story. Lev describes both himself and Kolya as living in this way. Kolya simply treats the war as though it's a ridiculous story from which he will certainly emerge triumphant. Lev, on the other hand, is fascinated by the absurdity of the situation, makes connections to fairytales, and hears events being narrated in his head. In this way, fiction becomes a vehicle through which the characters, in different ways, can both protect themselves and attempt to make sense of the events they experience.
Lev and Kolya are both shaped by the dangers and difficulties of writing, telling, and publishing stories. During this time in Russian history, intense censorship by the Soviet government of all sorts of art and information played a huge part in keeping the population under control and boosting Soviet citizens’ morale for the war. Lev's family paid the price for writing material that didn't unwaveringly support the Soviet regime when his father, a semi-famous Jewish poet, was taken by the NKVD in 1937 and never returned. For Lev, this created a sense of danger around the written word, as he's witnessed firsthand the price of speaking one's mind. Kolya is also a writer, but he's afraid of embarrassment rather than persecution for his work. As such, he invents an author, Ushakovo, and discusses his novel The Courtyard Hound as though it's already a published work to avoid embarrassing himself. However, though Lev falls for Kolya's ploy, he's still quick to point out when elements or passages of The Courtyard Hound seem too similar to other famous works. Through Kolya's referencing of these other authors, the reader is reminded that Kolya is young and inexperienced and is in the process of not just writing his novel, but of writing the story of his life as well. In the end, this idea extends to all the characters. The narration that Lev hears in his head becomes actual narration in a published novel, and his and Kolya's story, no matter how fictionalized, is recorded, edited, and shared with the world.
Literature and Storytelling ThemeTracker
Literature and Storytelling Quotes in City of Thieves
But I wasn't leaving Piter. I was a man, I would defend my city, I would be a Nevsky for the twentieth century.
I'd like to say I missed them when they were gone, and some nights I was lonely, and always I missed my mother's cooking, but I had fantasized about being on my own since I was little. My favorite folktales featured resourceful orphans... I wouldn't say I was happy—we were all too hungry to be happy—but I believed that here at last was the Meaning.
She wants a real wedding, a proper wedding. This is good, life must continue, we're fighting barbarians but we must remain human, Russian. So we will have music, dancing... a cake.
The secret to winning a woman is calculated neglect.
Everything about the war was ridiculous: The Germans' barbarity, the Party's propaganda, the crossfire of incendiary bullets that lit the nighttime sky. It all seemed to him like someone else's story, an amazingly detailed story that he had stumbled into and now could not escape.
You couldn't let too much truth seep into your conversation, you couldn't admit with your mouth what your eyes had seen. If you opened the door even a centimeter, you would smell the rot outside and hear the screams. You did not open the door. You kept your mind on the tasks of the day, the hunt for food and water and something to burn, and you saved the rest for the end of the war.
Kolya stared into the distance, contemplating the lieutenant's words. He must have thought they were profound. To me they sounded manufactured, the kind of line my father always hated, fake dialogue invented by some Party-approved journalist for one of those "Heroes at the Front!" articles Truth for Young Pioneers always ran.
This is all very strange, I thought. I am in the middle of a battle and I am aware of my own thoughts, I am worried about how stupid I look with a knife in my hand while everyone else came to fight with rifles and machine guns. I am aware that I am aware. Even now, with bullets buzzing through the air like angry hornets, I cannot escape the chatter of my brain.
Kolya considered himself a bit of a bohemian, a free thinker, but in his own way he was as much a true believer as any Young Pioneer. The worst part about it was that I didn't think he was wrong.
Kolya seemed fearless, but everyone has fear in them somewhere; fear is part of our inheritance... Cannibals and Nazis didn't make Kolya nervous, but the threat of embarrassment did—the possibility that a stranger might laugh at the lines he'd written.