Review: Bezmozgis novel explores loyalty, betrayal
“The Betrayers” (Little, Brown and Co.), by David Bezmozgis
The betrayals come thick and fast in David Bezmozgis’ aptly titled and beautifully written second novel, “The Betrayers.” The first involves Baruch Kotler, a 64-year-old Israeli politician who cheated on his wife with a much younger woman. Soon enough we learn that Kotler, a world-renowned Soviet Jewish dissident, was betrayed by a putative political ally, the prime minister, who secretly arranged to leak photos of the affair to the media because Kotler resisted pressure to go along with the ruling coalition’s plan to dismantle Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
To escape the media circus that erupts when the photos are published, Kotler and his lover, Leora, flee to the Black Sea resort of Yalta where the Ukrainian-born Baruch, born Boris, vacationed with his parents as a boy. There, in a dilapidated guesthouse in the foothills of the Crimean Mountains, he encounters a former roommate from Soviet days — also Jewish, also a Zionist — who years before denounced Kotler to the KGB as an American spy.
As the clever plot builds to a climax, Bezmozgis explores larger, ever thornier questions of loyalty and treachery. With what or whom does one keep absolute faith? Are there certain bedrock principles and promises made to family, nation or ideology that one never betrays? And what of the promises that a government makes to its own people? Was it wrong, as Baruch believes, for Israel to uproot settlers from lands occupied in the Six-Day War without first having a peace deal with the Palestinians? And if so, then why is he troubled that his own son, a religious Jew serving in the Israeli army, might disobey orders to evict settlers?
Bezmozgis, who was born in Riga, Latvia, and emigrated to Canada as a boy, writes extraordinarily well about Zionism and the complex politics and social issues in modern-day Israel and the lands of the former Soviet Union. Earlier this year he wrote a piece for The New Yorker, worrying that the uprising in Ukraine might make the novel he’d been working on for four years seem irrelevant or dated. He need not have worried. Though the pitch-perfect dialogue very occasionally lapses into speechifying, Bezmozgis, for the most part, has created an utterly believable and memorable cast of characters whose passions and problems are as timeless as the allure of a Black Sea summer resort.