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In March this year, David Bezmozgis published an essay on the New Yorker’s website entitled “The Novel in Real Time”. For four years, he said, he had been writing a novel set in “present-day Crimea”. But then a revolution made present-day Crimea a new place. No longer could he set his book in 2014 as he had planned. He would “have to find another solution”. This, to Bezmozgis, called to mind Philip Roth’s half-century-old concern that fiction writers would withdraw from “some of the grander social and political phenomena of our times”. How can novelists write about the news when it may overtake them?
Bezmozgis’s essay is peculiar, in that it seems to posit literature as being in competition with journalism. But whereas journalism explains the news, literature ought to expand, subvert, or transcend it. And it is especially peculiar in light of his new book. The Betrayers is a compelling novel, rich in aesthetic pleasures and moral questions, but it works best on a psychological level, not a political one. Yes, it is set in Crimea, but there is no real hint of the tumult or conflict. Yes, it is about Zionism, but does little to make us see it anew. What it does illumine, through the interplay between characters and the turns of its narrative, is the difficulty of imagining our way into other people’s heads, and the cost of failing to do so.
The main character of The Betrayers is Baruch Kotler, a famous former Soviet dissident who has become an Israeli politician. He seems to be inspired by Natan Sharansky, who, like Bezmozgis’s character, spent years in the gulag. And as Sharansky resigned from the cabinet in 2005 rather than support a plan to withdraw settlements from the West Bank and Gaza, so Kotler refuses to support a plan to withdraw from an unnamed “settlement bloc”.
At this point the novel departs from reality. To repay Kotler’s recalcitrance, the Israeli government splashes pictures of the married politician with his young mistress across the newspapers. The exposed couple flees to Crimea, the vacation resort of Kotler’s youth. By chance, they end up staying in the house of the man who decades before had denounced Kotler, thereby consigning him to the gulag. By chance: but there is, of course, no such thing as chance in a novel.
Bezmozgis is a smart, taut writer, at his best evocative of Roth in his voice, humour, and preoccupations. His sentences make interesting turns; his dialogue bites; and he brings alive pre-revolutionary Crimea, with its glum post-Soviet citizens and purple Yalta onions for sale by the roadside. He creates vivid characters, primary among them Kotler’s denouncer, Vladimir Tankilevich. He is a bitter, ageing, self-pitying man, who, because of his complicity, now lives in exile in Yalta under an assumed name. His existence is grinding: he must travel three hours each day by trolleybus to earn his stipend from a Jewish agency.
The novel builds towards the inevitable confrontation between the two men. Their argument, by turns comic and profound, degenerates into a contest over who has suffered more. Tankilevich claims he “got the same thirteen years and however many more” as Kotler – a life of misery. His betrayal, in contrast, was Kotler’s “lottery ticket”, bestowing on him, for the small price of a prison term, a ticket to Israel and fame.
Kotler, whose trials included a hunger strike that ended with him being force-fed by tube, is surely the winner of the suffering sweepstakes. Yet Tankilevich, the more vile character, is also the more sympathetic, in part because Bezmozgis helps us feel every jolt of the trolleybus on his sciatic spine. But also because at times Kotler is hard to endure as a character. We are told early on that he is “inept at selfishness”, even as we also learn how adeptly he has carried on an affair. He is a saint, in his lover’s word, a man for whom principle is no different than instinct.
This makes sense in the Soviet Union, where what was right was as clear as the regime was repressive. But principle – “justice” – in contemporary Israel is a far more contested territory, and here Bezmozgis seems on less steady ground. We are told that Kotler is an intellectual, yet his principles, in supporting the settlers, seem derived as much from circumstance – the settlers supported his wife during her quest for his freedom – as from any deep belief or reasoning. When it comes to Israel, where do his ethics come from? And where should they lead?
This becomes especially pertinent when Kotler’s son, a religious soldier, seeks his father’s blessing to defy orders to remove the settlers. Kotler won’t give it: Israel, as a democratic Jewish state, deserves obedience that the Soviet state did not. Kotler’s son then takes drastic action rather than carry out his orders. Here is principle taken to its extreme, yet Kotler never saw it coming. And this, more than any political particularities, is the strength of The Betrayers: in showing our inability to conceive where others’ natures, or our own, will take us next.
The Betrayers, by David Bezmozgis, Viking, RRP £12.99/Little, Brown RRP$26, 240 pages
Amy Waldman is author of ‘The Submission’ (Windmill Books)
Illustration by Shonagh Rae