One time New Yorker 20 under 40 notable David Bezmozgis has written the most inflammatory new novel of the year. (Russians! Jews! Ukraine! Israel!) RICHARD POPLAK peeks between the covers to see what all the fuss is about.
I suppose it goes without saying, but in the case of David Bezmozgis’s superb new novel The Betrayers, I’ll say it anyway: headlines and novels inhabit opposite positions on the literary continuum. One is the maligned hare, the other the heroic tortoise – no one decorates a copy-editor at a champagne-drenched event sponsored by a financial institution. Occasionally, however, the speed of life bends the continuum into a circle, and the headline intersects with the novel to create a sort of hyper-literature. If the novel is bad, we claim that it is “ripped from the headlines”, by which we mean that the book’s worth is dictated by the lesser form. If it is good, then it exerts a vertiginous trick upon the reader: the novel is at once timeless and as timely as a Twitter scroll, and leaves us dazzled by the nowness of history.
The Betrayers represents Bezmozgis’s second outing as a novelist. The first, The Free World, followed the paleo-diet leanness of the now classic Natasha And Other Stories, and Bezmozgis allowed the book’s navel to drift ever further from its sternum as the narrative progressed. Not so this time out. The Betrayers is all muscle. In a decision that must have cost the author, his agent and publishers many hours of hand-wringing – all of it immensely worthwhile, it turns out – this new book is set in Crimea during a floating moment before Ukraine explodes, and the Russians roll in to claim the peninsula.
And if that isn’t current affairs-y enough, we are introduced to the aging Baruch Kotler, a famous Russian dissident/Israeli politician of the Natan Shalansky stripe who, along with his terrifically young mistress, Leora, has slipped from the op-ed page of the broadsheets to the front page of the tabloids. In a lethal political move, Kotler has jilted the prime minister and voted against a decision to evacuate a West Bank settlement. In order to encourage him to change his mind, a thug with illicit pictures requests a meeting, and Kotler is faced with a choice: political principles or personal agony. The affair breaks, and Kotler goes on the run with Leora in tow. As he explains to his daughter, who cannot understand his refusal to buckle to the KGB tactics employed by the state to which he escaped from KGB tactics: “There are matters of principle where you cannot compromise. Under any circumstances. If I’d compromised, it would have been worse. Far worse for all of us. For our country and for our family, which is part of our country.”
Kotler hopes to wait out the twin crises in the Crimean resort of Yalta, the vacation spot of his youth, a sad place inhabited by people to whom “a stain of pessimism and defeat adhered… implicating them in their own bad fortune”. By chance, or rather by cruel fate, Kotler rents a room in the house belonging to Volodya Tankilevich, who just so happens to be the man that denounced him to the KGB four decades ago. Coincidence? Does such a phenomenon even exist, asks the novel? Either way, Kotler’s political purdah is thrown off course by the sight of this sad, broken spectre, a man to whom life has taken a two-by-four and smashed into spiritual oblivion.
Both betrayed and betrayer have had time to consider the whys and what-fors of their divergent histories: if Kotler is one of Freedom’s enduring heroes, then Tankilevich is one of its great villains – a Jew who sold out a fellow Jew to the Soviet machine. But Tankilevich, as we learn over the course of this tragic, hilarious reunion, had his reasons – don’t we all? – and The Betrayers soars as it peels away the pieties. Like any saint, Kotler can be insufferable, especially when he’s making claims against his own beatification. “There is no fault, no blame or praise, but we are all held accountable,” he informs Tankilevich’s grim wife, Svetlana. These gnomic metaphysics don’t quite square with the fact that Kotler finds himself in Tankilevich’s home due to an act of betrayal against his wife and family – or is he who is politically betrayed somehow better than those that suffer the personal equivalent? In the book’s most moving scene, Kotler’s wife sends him an email that includes a line from Ecclesiastes, “For there is not a righteous man on earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not.”
And so unfolds a sly, moral parlour game, a chess match in which checkmate represents one’s own exalted victimisation at the hands of a former friend, or lover, or God, or Life, or whatever. In this, The Betrayer’s is a of Gulag-black satire of the Israeli/Palestinian “peace process” and, for that matter, Crimea’s status as Russia’s latest imperial acquisition; the book is a dark farce mirroring the joke of geopolitics, which in turn apes the everyday betrayals we visit on those we profess to love. DM