Crimean tale of scan­dal, be­trayal feels strangely out of touch

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Mor­ley Walker

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.

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