The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis, review by Bruce Jacobs
In his afterword to this story about a discredited Israeli Minister of Trade's retreat to Crimea with his mistress, David Bezmozgis (whose first novel, The Free World, was shortlisted for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize) recognizes the risks of setting a contemporary, politically layered fiction in countries in the news. While acknowledging that Crimea's recent annexation by Russia and the armed conflict between Israel and Gaza have made his novel's settings more broadly recognized, he also "felt frustrated that world events conspired to undermine my designs for the book." It's hard to invent events in a world that lives up to the expression "you can't make this stuff up." To Bezmozgis's credit, The Betrayers tells such a rich story of the Russian persecution of dissident Jews, the rabid Zionism of many Israeli immigrants and the complicated personal lives of those caught in history's maelstrom that it could be an enduring success regardless of the front-page news.
Baruch Kotler rose in Israeli politics as a dissident hero who survived 14 years in a Soviet Gulag and championed Jewish self-determination. But in his mid-60s, his public repudiation of the Prime Minister's decision to dismantle settlements in the West Bank leads to his political downfall and swift relocation to Yalta with his young mistress, Leora. With niggling ambivalence, he leaves behind Miriam, his wife of 40 years, his 18-year-old daughter, Dafna, and his son, Benzion, a young soldier in the Israeli army. Naïvely, he has hopes of a quiet life of love on the beaches of Crimea--until he discovers that the aging owner of his rental cottage is the same turncoat Russian Jew whose betrayal sent Kotler to the Gulag. Caught in an emotional cauldron of lust, vengeance and regret, Kotler is forced to examine his choices and attempt to do the right thing with regard to Leora, his family, his country and the former KGB informant--a decision made more difficult because of all the baggage he carries in his 60s compared to his unencumbered 20s. With resignation, he reflects that "we walk hand in hand with fate. We choose to follow it or pull against it... it is character that decides, and the trouble is, we don't decide our characters. We are born as we are."
Just as there is no easy answer to strife in Eastern Europe or the Middle East, there is no clear path forward for Kotler. Bezmozgis has engagingly captured all the historical and moral ambiguity hanging over the head of one man trying to sort out what's right in a world of wrongs. However, it is Kotler's wife, Miriam, who puts his situation in the context of a verse from Ecclesiastes: "For there is not a righteous man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not." The Betrayers is a powerful novel--both timely and timeless.