Crimean tale of scandal, betrayal feels strangely out of touch
THE summer’s grim headlines from both Israel and Russia have had the unfortunate consequence of making this Canadian-penned literary novel seem overtaken by events. Set this year in the Crimean resort city of Yalta, The Betrayers is the second novel from Torontonian David Bezmozgis, who continues to explore the plight of modern Soviet Jewry. Sad to say, it is considerably less compelling than his previous efforts. His first novel in 2011, The Free World, followed an extended family of Soviet Jews stuck in Rome as they tried to emigrate to the West in the late 1970s. His debut collection of short stories, 2004’s Natasha and Other Stories, depicted the depressing reality of such émigré lives in the drab highrises of north Toronto. Bezmozgis’s family arrived in Toronto from Latvia in 1979, when he was six. He has carved out a dual career as a writer and filmmaker, receiving acclaim on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border. In 2010 The New Yorker magazine, where he has published, named him as one of the top 20 fiction writers under age 40, and The Free World was shortlisted for Canada’s Giller Prize and Governor General’s Awards. His protagonist in The Betrayers is a pugnacious Israeli government cabinet minister. At age 64, Baruch Kotler, accompanied by his mistress half his age, has returned to Yalta, the city of his birth, fleeing a scandal that has disrupted his life. The scandal is largely of his own making. His love affair has been exposed by his Israeli political foes, humiliating his wife and embarrassing his adult children, after he refuses to co-operate with his prime minister, who wants to shut down settlements on the West Bank. In Yalta, Kotler improbably rents a room from the wife of the fellow Jew who turned him in to the KGB when he was a 25-yearold newlywed and Zionist, thus exiling him to the Gulag for 13 years before he immigrated to Israel. In fact this coincidence is so unlikely that the mistress says the chances of it happening were “less than nil.” The characters’ acknowledgment does not make it more believable. The novel thus turns on a confrontation between principle and pragmatism, and Bezmozgis gives us the back stories of both men, who made opposite choices under the yoke of communism. Kotler and Tankilevich both have committed acts of betrayal. Bezmozgis explores all sides of his characters’ predicaments, but in the end his premise feels too schematic to hold up a novel. In every way — length, depth, scope — The Betrayers is less ambitious than The Free World. In fact, its slenderness might cause a cynic to think that Bezmozgis knocked it off to fulfil a contractual obligation to his publisher for a two-book deal. A minor annoyance is his continued preference for introducing dialogue with a long dash rather than quotation marks, which are less affected and easier on the eye. More problematic is the absence of the dark humour that spiced his earlier writing, and of course marks the work of fellow Soviet-Jewish émigré writers Gary Shteyngart and Boris Fishman. And then there is Bezmozgis’s bad timing. Despite its setting and subject, the novel makes no mention of current UkrainianRussian tensions or the Israeli-Gaza conflict, let alone that all-purpose villain Vladimir Putin — all of which have made the summer of 2014 more compelling than fiction. Morley Walker is a former Free Press literary
editor and arts columnist.