The Betrayers is the third much-acclaimed book in David Bezmozgis’ relatively brief writing career. It was short-listed this year for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and his previous works — the novel The Free World (2011) and the collection Natasha and Other Stories (2004) — earned him impressive awards in a range of esteemed competitions. Each of these works showcases his precise, unassuming prose and his sensitive awareness of human thoughts and feelings.
They also reveal Bezmozgis’ interest in the immigrant experience, especially that of Soviet Jews as they wrestle with emotional and moral questions about how much to adopt their host culture and how much to maintain their traditional culture. And within the framework of these questions he depicts personal decisions that define characters’ experiences, paying special attention to simple acts of kindness and meanness, principle and amorality.
The Betrayers is set in Yalta and charts a decisive day in the life of Baruch Kotler, a Soviet Jewish dissident who immigrated to Israel and entered politics. Unwilling to back down from his challenging and honourable stand on West Bank settlements, Kotler earns the wrath of his political rivals, who make public his affair with a woman who is closer in age to Kotler’s daughter than she is to him. He flees Israel in the midst of this scandal and returns to the resort city he remembers from his childhood. While in Yalta Kotler encounters the very man who denounced him forty years earlier, the one time friend whose accusation sent Kotler to the Gulag.
This day is a decisive one for Kotler, because over its course he must consider the meaning of his actions most notably for his wife, who did all she could twenty-five years earlier to free him from the Gulag and get him to Israel; for his son, an Israeli soldier who is caught between following orders and following his own moral compass; and for his daughter, who considers herself a friend of Kotler’s mistress. What does his betrayal of their love and trust mean for him and them? And, what of those who have betrayed him and his trust — his one time friend and his political opponents? How should he respond to their actions?
In Baruch Kotler, Bezmozgis gives us a character whose tenacious commitment to principle is both his strength and his weakness. Leora, his mistress, reflects that, “her relationship with Kotler had been built upon a flawed premise. […] She had wanted her saint to also be a man.” A saint, she reasons, “loved the world more than any single person,” and in this conclusion Leora uncovers the noble priorities that guide Kotler’s life, but also that seem to separate that life from the everyday deeds and needs of those who are closest to him.
How should we regard Kotler’s moral priorities, his actions in stressful moments, his expressions of love and sacrifice? David Bezmozgis leads us to these questions delicately and pointedly in a novel that will stay with us for a long time.