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City of Thieves summary

City of Thieves book cover

Here are my favourite quotes from the book.

  • There were two theories on the fat versus the thin. Some said those who were fat before the war stood a better chance of survival: a week without food would not transform a plump man into a skeleton. Others said skinny people were more accustomed to eating little and could better handle the shock of starvation.

  • I was relieved at that, I didn’t want to share the darkness with a stranger with tattooed knuckles, but after a time –  minutes? hours? – the black silence began to feel tangible, something that could get into your lungs and drown you.

  • The night was never going to end. The Germans had shot down the fucking sun, they could do it, why not, their scientists were the best in the world, they could figure it out. They had learned how to stop time. I was blind and deaf. Only the cold and my thirst reminded me that I was alive. You get so lonely you start longing for the sentries, just to hear their footsteps, smell the vodka on their breath.

  • I’ve always envied people who sleep easily. Their brains must be cleaner, the floorboards of the skull well swept, all the little monsters closed up in a steamer trunk at the foot of the bed. I was born an insomniac and that’s the way I’ll die, wasting thousands of hours along the way longing for unconsciousness, longing for a rubber mallet to crack me in the head, not so hard, not hard enough to do any damage, just a good whack to put me down for the night.

  • In certain ways I am deeply stupid. I don’t say this out of modesty. I believe that I’m more intelligent than the average human being, though perhaps intelligence should not be looked at as a single gauge, like a speedometer, but as a full array of tachometers, odometers, altimeters, and the rest.

  • I knew I looked silly holding it, the way a young boy looks holding his father’s shaving razor. Kolya grinned at me as though he was about to start laughing. 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.

  • Heroes and fast sleepers, then, can switch off their thoughts when necessary. Cowards and insomniacs, my people, are plagued by babble on the brain.

  • ‘Talent must be a fanatical mistress. She’s beautiful; when you’re with her, people watch you, they notice. But she bangs on your door at odd hours, and she disappears for long stretches, and she has no patience for the rest of your existence: your wife, your children, your friends. She is the most thrilling evening of your week, but some day she will leave you for good. One night, after she’s been gone for years, you will see her on the arm of a younger man, and she will pretend not to recognize you.’

  • We kept walking because we had to keep walking, because we had come too far to stop now, but I do not know where the energy for each footfall came from. There is a place beyond hunger, beyond fatigue, where time no longer seems to move and the body’s misery no longer seems fully your own.

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