David Bezmozgis burst onto the North American literary scene in the most unlikely way: by publishing, to great acclaim, Natasha, a small collection of idiosyncratic, autobiographical stories set in the Toronto borough of North York, about as unpromising a “literary” setting as you can imagine. (Trust me on that last point: I grew up a few minutes’ walk from the location of many of Natasha’s stories.)
His debut novel, The Free World, followed an extended family of Latvian Jewish immigrants stranded in Rome in 1978. Employing many of the familiar tropes of the immigrant novel, Bezmozgis infused The Free World with gritty vitality and comedy, avoiding the sentimental stereotypes of the form.
In his second novel, Bezmozgis, whose family emigrated from Latvia, turns his eye to another group of Jews who freed themselves from Soviet and post-communist Russia.
Baruch Kotler, a beloved Israeli politician in his mid-sixties, flees to Yalta with his much younger lover, Leora Rosenberg, after incriminating photos exposing their affair are leaked to the Israeli media. The photos are retaliation for Baruch’s refusal to vote for a controversial plan to evict a group of settlers from land contested by the Palestinians. Baruch believes the land belongs to Israel and won’t back down from this position, even if it ruins his career and estranges him from his wife and grown children.
As a young man in Soviet Russia, Baruch was imprisoned for 13 years for his pro-Zionist stance; he has not been back to Yalta, where his family used to vacation, since he was a boy. As fate would have it, he and Leora end up renting rooms in the house of the very man who betrayed Baruch to the KGB decades earlier. The two men recognize each other immediately, setting off a reluctant and long-awaited confrontation.
Baruch’s betrayer is Vladimir Tankilevich (an assumed name), now a sad old man reliant on a pension from a Jewish aid agency, a gruesome irony considering his past as a KGB informant. Impoverished, beaten down, and in fading health, Vladimir is a guilt-ridden, self-justifying wreck, no match for Baruch’s angry righteousness.
One of the novel’s most sure-footed and daring moves is to delay the final confrontation for as long as possible and then defy convention by using the argument to show the hollowness of revenge. There is no punishment Baruch can impose on Vladimir that life has not already doled out. This realization does not diffuse the tension but extends it past the novel’s conclusion, leaving readers to interpolate their own moral understanding onto Baruch and Vladimir’s dilemmas.
It’s refreshing to read such an outrightly political novel in an age where the default ideological position for most novelists is either political disengagement or easy liberal-humanist sentiments. Bezmozgis demonstrates, with great moral force and psychological insight, that political disengagement is not a position available to Israelis in general, and Jewish refuseniks in particular. Bezmozgis’s characters continually interrogate their own positions on Zionism’s key tenets, positioning the movement’s idealist origins against the realpolitik of governing a militarized nation threatened by internal and external conflict.
Make no mistake, though: The Betrayers is unabashedly pro-Zionist. For all of the moral agonizing displayed by the characters, nobody seriously considers the Palestinian position. The Palestinians, Baruch muses, are like all anti-Semites throughout history, simply demanding that the Jews “go back where we belong.”
It is one thing for a committed Zionist character to voice these opinions, another for his author to countenance that viewpoint by offering no counter-argument. Though the pro-Palestinian movement is far more anti-Semitic than critics of Israel are willing to admit, the novel’s Zionist viewpoint is ultimately just as simplistic and self-serving as those of its opponents.
That refusal to dig deeper into the tangled nationalist motivations and moral quandaries of contemporary Zionism may account for the somewhat stilted tone that too often permeates the novel. Bezmozgis seems unwilling to tease out his characters’ psychological and erotic messiness with the same zeal and insight he brought to his previous books.
The novel’s mounting action is laid out in neat order, with sections of largely philosophical dialogue intercut with backstory, memory, and internal monologue, all conveyed with a measured tone. A melancholic, ironic sensibility and droll wit informs the novel’s best passages, coupled with a sense of exhausted idealism that many readers will wish Bezmozgis had more fully embraced.
Ultimately, The Betrayers feels somewhat entombed by its own seriousness, but like any good novel, it’s still worth reading and arguing with.