Victim and Accuser Clash in David Bezmozgis’ ‘The Betrayers’

Lee Polevoi

 

The Betrayers

David Bezmzogis

Little Brown

225 pages

 

The setup of David Bezmozgis’ second novel is refreshingly simple. Baruch Kotler, a prominent Israeli politician (and former political prisoner in the USSR) has fled Tel Aviv in disgrace with his much younger mistress, Leora. They come to Yalta, a resort town in the Crimea, where, after a mix-up over hotel reservations, they rent a room in an apartment owned by a Russian woman, Svetlana.

 

As we quickly discover, Svetlana’s aged husband, Chaim Tankilevich, is the man who long ago denounced Kotler to the KGB, which led to Kotler’s 13 years of exile and imprisonment.   

 

It’s a mark of Bezmozgis’ skill that such an outlandish coincidence feels only mildly surprising in the course of human events. The author is equally adept at capturing Kotler’s sardonic nature in this early exchange with Leora, after the hotel reservation they’ve made turns out to be canceled:

 

– The cow says they have no record of our reservation, Leora announced. An outright lie. I was tempted to tell her whom she was dealing with.

—I’m sure it would have made a profound impression.

—I wouldn’t be so dismissive of your importance.

—Well, there’s something I’ve seldom been accused of, Kotler said.

 

But as he deftly engineers the inevitable confrontation between accused and betrayer – after decades of bitter recriminations have passed – Bezmozgis takes us out of Kotler’s perspective (which extends for nearly the entire length of this short novel) and into the world inhabited by Chaim Tankilevich.

 

The ex-KGB informant and his wife live a hand-to-mouth existence in near-total anonymity, and while we’re reflexively inclined to sympathize with the man he betrayed, we’re also made to understand the hobbling conditions that have made Tankilevich the man he is today.

 

 

Every week he takes a long, painful bus ride to attend a faltering synagogue in Simferopol, in exchange for which he receives a small subsidy from a local Jewish charity. But the hours of travel back and forth are breaking him down:

 

“He could anticipate every roadside stand with its jars of honey and strings of purple Yalta onions. He could anticipate the sloping vineyards and the pastures with their cows and horses like indolent fixtures of the landscape. And he could anticipate the cement bus shelters and the blank-eyed men who sat on their haunches beside them. This pitiless monotony, this drone of a life, to this he had been condemned. Especially in this land, to this they had all been condemned … He was forced to look, to contend with the unremitting dreariness of existence. He was a seventy-one-year-old man afflicted with cataracts, arrhythmia, and sciatica, captive of the trolleybus, tormented body and soul.”

 

At the heart of The Betrayers are two extended conversations (“showdowns” is too strong a word) first between Leora and Svetlana, then between Kotler and Tankilevich. In long discussions, the four probe issues of loyalty and betrayal, truth and deception, and the terrible toll the past always exacts upon the present.

 

But despite the inert nature of two women and then two men talking at great length (where nothing else happens), these conversations are both compelling and enlightening. Pages keep turning without the need for any stylistic fireworks.

 

The novel falters somewhat in its portrayal of secondary characters like Kotler’s long-suffering wife Miriam and his son Benzion, an Israeli soldier tormented by a moral quandary created in part by his high-principled, yet curiously detached father. Wife and son appear primarily as voices at the far end of a long-distance phone call and, as a result, fail to convey the impact the author desires near the end of the story.

 

But Bezmozgis’ voice, with its echoes of Bernard Malamud, is witty, sinewy, insightful and captivating. The Betrayers is an accomplished piece of work from an author who takes a long view of the follies and misery of the past.

 

Author Bio:

 

Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magaazine’s chief book critic, is completing a new novel.

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