The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis

BetrayersIn the author note affixed to the end of his second novel The Betrayers (after The Free World and a short story collection, Natasha), David Bezmozgis describes being in somewhat of a pickle prior to his book’s publication. The story he had been working on for four years, initially set to take place in current-day Crimea, was no longer viable. Like those of other novelists foiled by a sudden change in world events, Bezmozgis’s original intentions had been eclipsed by the recent uprisings in Ukraine and Crimea’s controversial changing of hands from Ukraine to Russia. Could “The Betrayers” still address “the grander social and political phenomena of our times?” he asks. “Does this render the pursuit of a novel with political ambition a fool’s errand?”

The Betrayers unfolds over the course of a 24-hour period. At the book’s outset, Baruch Kotler, a Soviet Jewish dissident turned prominent Israeli cabinet member, has embarked on an emergency vacation with his aide, a young ingénue and family friend with whom he’s having an affair. They’ve journeyed to Yalta, a resort city off the north coast of the Black Sea in the Crimean peninsula, to escape a flurry of incriminating photos that made front-page news after Kotler refused to back down from his opposition to Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank settlements.

Their holiday retreat doesn’t go as planned. After a mix-up with their hotel reservation, Kotler and his mistress Leora book a room in a small cottage owned by a local proprietor stationed outside the bus depot. Though the tantalizing promise of their first shared accommodations looms over the transaction, reality sets in when Kotler comes to realize the owner of the house’s identity — Tankilevich, the man responsible for sending Kotler to prison 40 years prior.

From the moment Kotler and Tankilevich come face to face, the book picks up some much-needed heft as Bezmozgis delves into the characters’ overlapping backstories. While a then 25-year-old Zionist Kotler was applying for residency in Israel, a similarly aged Tankilevich was being recruited to inform on refuseniks for the KGB. In exchange for a more lenient jail sentence for his thieving brother, Tankilevich was tasked with finding evidence that would incriminate Kotler as a traitor. After Tankilevich reports Kotler’s moonlighting for the CIA,  Kotler gets hauled off to the gulag while Tankilevich’s brother escapes the death penalty.

But it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Kotler wasn’t a spy or that Tankilevich was coerced into providing false evidence. And after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kotler emigrates to Israel — a hero after serving a 13-year sentence, while Tankilevich is still stuck in Yalta under an assumed identity, living off a meager stipend given to him by a Jewish-American charity.

There is a lot at stake here and many betrayals to consider — Tankilevich of Kotler, Kotler of his family, and both men of their consciences. But there’s also the larger picture. Bezmozgis paints a stark portrait of two countries turning their backs on their Jews once again. “To uproot thousands of your own people. To make casualties of them for no discernible purpose. It was gross incompetence,” he writes of Israel’s abandonment of the settlements, via Kotler. “If you were not willing to protect your people, you should not have encouraged them to live in that place, and if you were not going to encourage them to live in that place, you should never have held the territory. There was no middle ground.”

Given that it’s set during the summer of 2014, The Betrayers may not be completely accurate amidst the ebb and flow of the current crisis in Russia and the Ukraine. A 24-hour period might also be too short a time frame to give such a thorny, multifaceted story the depth and attention it deserves. (For one, the Arab side of the equation is mostly ignored, which seems like a missed opportunity.) But were Bezmozgis’s efforts to pen a politically relevant book foolhardy? Not entirely. It’s a novel based on truth, after all.

Originally ran in The Oregonian (September 17, 2014)

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