The Betrayers: A Novel
The Betrayers: A Novel by David Bezmozgis (Little, Brown and Company, 240 pp. $26)
Seldom has the world of Jewish letters been so invigorated as it has the last few years by the emergence of Soviet-born writers like Gary Shteyngart, Boris Fishman and Lara Vapnyar. Now comes David Bezmozgis, who emigrated from Latvia to Canada when he was 6, with The Betrayers, a tale that tests the mettle of moral absolutists. The novel won a National Jewish Book Award for 2014, handed out by the Jewish Book Council.
Set in Crimea, The Betrayers relates a story that is simple on its surface but deeply scrutinizes ethical judgments, even though the events transpire in only one day.
Baruch Kotler is a refusenik in the Soviet Union who emerges from a 13-year prison sentence on trumped-up charges to become a respected Israeli Cabinet member. He is loosely modeled on Natan Sharansky, the one-time dissident who landed in Israel a hero and became a Cabinet member only to face his own difficult choices as a politician. The fictional Kotler tries to take the moral high ground when he decides not to support an Israeli government decision to dismantle a settlement bloc in the West Bank.
While incurring the wrath of the government, he is blackmailed to change his mind when a high government official leaks embarrassing photos of Kotler and his young mistress, Leora. Kotler refuses, despite the crisis that will envelope him and his family, and flees with Leora to Yalta, where he summered as a child.
In Yalta, we meet the man who betrayed Kotler. When Kotler’s hotel reservation is lost, he and Leora agree to stay in the house of a woman who boasts that her husband is Jewish. He turns out to be Kotler’s nemesis, Vladimir Tankilevich, now called Chaim. It has been 40 years since his false testimony to Soviet authorities, and Tankilevich has been regarded as a Judas by the Jewish community the whole time. He is now virtually impoverished, living on a meager stipend from a Jewish charity.
The years have taken their toll, but Bezmozgis wants us to consider who in this scenario are the betrayers. Tankilevich insists that he has given Kotler a gift. “Say what you will,” he tells him, “but you benefited from this gulag. You had 13 dark years followed by how many bright ones? Without those 13 years, where would you be? You say living a normal life. Am I living a normal life?”
There are no easy answers to questions of conscience, and when the reason for Tankilevich’s betrayal becomes known, the novel takes an unexpected turn. It is not a matter of forgiveness, Kotler tells Tankilevich’s wife: “I hold him blameless…. This is the primary insight I have gleaned from life: The moral component is no different from the physical component—a man’s soul, a man’s conscience, is like the height or the shape of his nose.”
Kotler’s plight is intimately connected to his close relationship with his family, first with his loving wife, Miriam, who campaigned tirelessly for him (just as Sharansky’s wife worked unceasingly to free him). Kotler’s son, Benzion, a religious conscript in the Israeli army, faces his own moral quandary when he is ordered to dismantle a settlement based in biblical Israel. After consultation with his father, who says there is usually a third way between agreement and refusal, Benzion makes a fateful decision. How he resolves his problem of conscience is a window into modern-day Zionism. Kotler’s daughter, Dafna, figures prominently, too. Defending his decision not to give in to blackmail, Kotler tells Dafna about the importance of “not negotiating with terrorists.” Dafna demurs. Any benefit to the country is worthless, she says, “if it destroys our family.”
As events unfold over decades of history, it is apparent that the issues of betrayal are psychologically complex, both for the characters and for the reader. Who is the hero and who is the villain?
And it is to the credit of Bemozgis, who was heralded by The New Yorker magazine in its 20 Under 40 Fiction Issue, that he knows how to pull several stories together to conclude the book in an original, telling way: “Now it was coming to a close, like all Jewish stories come to a close, with suitcases.”