By David Bezmozgis
Toronto-based writer David Bezmozgis – who began his career with a short story in The New Yorker – continues to win acclaim. His first book, Natasha and Other Stories – a collection dealing largely with people of his heritage, refuseniks from Soviet Latvia who made it to Toronto – was a mix of magic and irony. He followed it with a novel, The Free World, again about Latvian refuseniks, which was short-listed for the Giller Prize.
His latest, The Betrayers, is a short novel, this time about refuseniks from the Russian heartland, most of whom made it to Israel. It begins with the arrival in Yalta of Baruch Kotler, an important Israeli politician described as “a pot-bellied little man,” and his beautiful young mistress, Leora.
Kotler – who bears some resemblance in background and description to Natan Sharansky – is famous for the years he spent in the Soviet Gulag, and it is through his strong character that he attracts a beautiful mistress. Leora is his secretary, the daughter of fellow refuseniks. She is, or was, a friend of Kotler’s daughter, son and wife.
They skipped out of Israel because Kotler – who opposes a government plan to demolish West Bank settlements – is being blackmailed over his affair with Leora. He refuses to give in to the blackmail. In the background is a prime minister who is never named and doesn’t show up, but there are hints he was based on Benjamin Netanyahu. “The prime minister was many things, but he was no amateur,” writes Bezmozgis.
All this becomes known in the first few pages. The narrative technique is skilful, with metaphors that are sharp and move the story along.
“All the while, a current passed between him and Leora, like the invisible data that streamed between all the new machines,” writes Bezmozgis near the beginning of the book.
Then, near the end: “Kotler stood by the roadside. A truck plunged through the amplitude of dense air, and a wave of it washed over and staggered him. He had tried to do right, he thought, but had caused a great deal of hurt, even more than he’d expected.”
Almost all the action of the novel takes place in Crimea. We learn what is happening back home the same way Baruch and Leora do, by way of cell phone. There are two plots. One happens in Crimea and brings back the past, the betrayal of Kotler by a Jewish KGB agent. The other is happening back home in Israel and involves the settlements and Kotler’s family.
The title is deliberately chosen. Nearly everybody in the book betrays somebody. Moral dilemmas sprout. The story is set in a fictional present. Russia has not yet annexed Crimea and Ukraine is not at war. Israel’s government looks like the one we know, but it is prepared to forcibly evacuate the settlements. It tells us things about the real present. Russia and Ukraine are seen as Middle Eastern countries and Israel, at least part of the time, is a post-Soviet republic, with many Slavic ways of doing things.
And there is sex, as befits a novel. There are Kotler and Leora, but also a number of older, hard-bitten women and a randy rabbi who, collectively, project a sly eroticism onto the political landscape.
The plot in Crimea has a logical conclusion. The plot back in Israel has a conclusion that is sensational and completely unpredictable.