Book Review – The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis
I while ago I posted a little missive about having to shed books that had outbred our groaning bookshelves. I spoke about mercilessly wading in and excising entire ouvres. Then I got brutally flamed from some members of this site for having evicted, specifically, Justin Cartwright.
So in a fit of guilt I went onto the web and sought out Cartwright’s book-of-the-year, figuring that if I bought it and read it, I would, by some weird literary code, be redeemed. His choice was The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis (yes, I know, what kind of a weird person has a surname like this). I had never heard of the book, never heard of the author, and made the decision to go in blind – reading neither reviews or cover blurbs.
What an astonishing little book. Actually more akin to a play than a book. Only four main characters, with the bulk of the book taking place in constrained locations, with long, probing and emotional interactions and unravellings between various members of this foursome, all of them sharply sculpted and clearly differentiated voices. I do not want to spoil, and will admit that this sort of tight and taught and structure will appeal more to Chekov lovers than the lovers of action-driven books, or even the ‘big books’ of award-winning novelists (it turns out that Bezmozgis is a Latvian emigre to Canada, and has been all over the literary shortlists for 2 years, and whose books have been translated into a dozen languages).
So, with caution – a celebrated Israeli politician named Kotler, a Russian immigrant who had spent decades in the horrors of the Gulag in his attempt to get to Israel, is not playing ball with the sitting government, and standing on principle on the matter of settlements. So Mossad unmasks an affair he is having with younger woman, getting it it splashed on the front pages of national newspapers. Kotler and his mistress Leora leave his long term (and beloved) wife and children and scurry to his childhood Crimea to escape the scandal.
The story unfolds entirely in Yalta, Crimea where Kotler, by co-incidence, comes face to face with the man who denounced him to the KGB all those decades ago. This forms the core of the novel. An interesting sidebar – Kotler is described convincingly as a man of unshakable integrity and near godlike morality, even in the face of his affair and, jarringly, his support for the settlers and their settlements. This last bit of combustive material is never judged, and Israeli/Palestinian politics is not part of this story at all (except in the most peripheral way).
But what is profoundly present in the story is the history of the Jewish ‘refuseniks’ (those Jews who had had the temerity to try and immigrate to Israel from a deeply anti-semitic USSR in the 70s and 80s and were cruelly persecuted for the attempt). Kotler may be based on Natan Sharansky, a current right-wing Israeli politician who was once a global cause-celebre of the human-rights movement, who helped to extract him from KGB jails in Siberia in 1986 (all fictional facts about Kotler and his wife match Sharansky’s biography).
Above all, the book is about the nature of betrayal, its shifting shape in the face of memory and circumstance and the similarly nebulous definition of forgiveness. People without an interest in the late-20th century cruelties of incipient Russian anti-semitism may have little interest in the background narrative, but the foreground issues of divided loyalties, sin, repentance and redemption and their entangled complexities are marvelously drawn, particularly within a story as small as this.