New Novel With Sharansky-like Hero Loaded With Intrigue

In his superb new novel, David Bezmogis tackles Israel, with a flawed hero who’s something of a cross between Natan Sharansky and Avigdor Lieberman.

Shana Rosenblatt Mauer
Natan Sharansky.
Natan Sharansky.Credit: Emil Salman
Shana Rosenblatt Mauer

“The Betrayers,” by David Bezmozgis, Little, Brown, 225 pages, $13

David Bezmozgis’ new novel, “The Betrayers,” is about a chance encounter between Baruch Kotler, an Israeli politician and former Soviet dissident, and Volodya Tankilevich, the man who denounced him as a Zionist to the KGB 40 years earlier, in 1973. As young adults, the two men had been friends and flatmates in Moscow. Then, pressured by the KGB, Tankilevich agreed to publicly accuse Kotler of Jewish nationalist sympathies. Kotler, who was Zionistic but hardly an activist, was subsequently sentenced to hard labor in the Gulag, which only ended 13 years later, thanks to his wife, Miriam’s, international campaign to get him freed. Once in Israel, Kotler, a fictionalized mix of former “Prisoner of Zion” Natan Sharansky and Israel’s current foreign minister, the Moldovan-born Avigdor Lieberman, becomes a public figure widely revered both for having stood up to the Soviet regime and for remaining true to his conscience in his capacity as an Israeli legislator.

The novel’s backstory reads like an article lifted from a gossipy news column in the current Israeli press. Kotler, head of a party supported largely by Russian immigrants and a member of the Israeli cabinet, opposes a plan promoted by the prime minister – a Benjamin Netanyahu-like figure – to evacuate an unnamed West Bank settlement bloc. A hired hand (Bezmogis is vague on details about either the plan or the plot against Kotler) tries to blackmail him, threatening to flood the media with incriminating photos of his affair with a young Russian-Israeli politico if he continues to vocally oppose the operation. During a moonlit tte-à-tte in a Jerusalem park, Kotler announces his refusal to comply, explaining that he cannot be intimidated “by this sort of KGB thuggery.” The next morning, anticipating the imminent scandal, his wife’s heartbreak and his children’s shame, he flees with his mistress, Leora, to the seaside city of Yalta in Crimea, which he nostalgically recalls from childhood holidays.

Upon arrival in the vacation town, the couple encounters a problem with their hotel reservation and reluctantly ends up renting a room from a local woman. Then, to make matters worse, Kotler discovers that the woman’s husband is none other than Tankilevich. Once the characters have all identified each other, the novel begins to deal with the chain of betrayals that were committed and suffered as a result of the fateful period in the early 1970s, when Kotler was transformed from a young music prodigy with a burgeoning interest in Jewish nationalism to an internationally recognized dissident, a modern Jewish cause célèbre.

‘Inept at selfishness’

“The Betrayers” is a compelling novel largely because of its believable, sympathetic protagonist. Kotler, with his wry, self-deprecating sense of humor, is likeable because “he [is] inept at selfishness.” Despite his success, political power and prestige, he has too much integrity and self-awareness to be egotistical. In absconding with Leora, he has finally “pursued a selfish want,” but the escape from his decent, principled life brings him little pleasure.

The novel’s strength also lies in Bezmozgis’s evocative portrayal of Kotler’s Israeli world. Up until 20 years ago, American Jewish novelists rarely wrote about Israel, and when they did, the results were often problematic: Think “Exodus,” mired in cliché and stereotype, or even Philip Roth’s “The Counterlife,” riddled with misconceptions of local social, political and religious realities. By contrast, Bezmozgis is an adept observer of the Israeli social landscape, which figures prominently here, though the novel is set in Crimea. Consequently, his characters are not political, religious or ethnic stereotypes, but nuanced individuals with distinct affiliations and beliefs.

Leora, for instance, who is a generation younger than Kotler, is a convincing product of both the idealism of her Zionistic, former refusenik parents and the brash, confrontational culture for which the Jewish state is well-known. Kotler cannot help but marvel at the “Levantine penchant for argument” of his idealistic, Russian-Israeli mistress as she berates a hotel clerk in Yalta. Miriam, Kotler’s religiously observant wife, defers to her rabbi on matters both personal and political, but is nonetheless perceptive and deceptively wise. Appearing somewhat wooden is Kotler’s son, Benzion, a soldier who tends to speak in slogans: “You’re saying I should go along with this even if it makes me sick?” he asks his father regarding his orders to evacuate settlers. “Even if I believe in perfect faith that it is wrong, a sin against God to give up land?” Yet, Benzion’s canned syntax is part of what makes him believable, especially since he is very single-minded and less attuned to moral complexity than the rest of his family.

Bezmozgis also creates a vivid portrait of Crimea. From the scenes at the Simferopol Hesed (a Jewish social welfare center in the Crimean capital), to an anti-Semitic encounter at a local supermarket, the novel dramatizes Jewish life in cities and towns that exude post-Soviet gloom. And, though Simferopol’s Jews are depicted as a diminishing community, some cling to a profound sense of Jewish identity. For instance, a small group of elders, despite their ignorance of Jewish liturgy, meet at a local synagogue each Saturday to engage in an eclectic tribute to the Sabbath and discuss Israel with as much gusto as any schul posse in Brighton Beach or Ashdod.

Likewise, the director of the Hesed is jaded, impatient with those who take advantage of the center’s largesse and others whom she deems altogether undeserving of Jewish philanthropy, namely Tankilevich – well-known for denouncing Kotler and, in her eyes, a traitor to his people.Still, she is ultimately well-intentioned in her efforts to help her brethren and preserve the last vestiges of local Jewish life.

Bezmozgis appended an essay to the novel in which he addresses the problem of writing about contemporary scenarios in an era when regimes can change overnight and political instability can upend a society in a matter of days. He had initially planned to set his novel in 2014 to make the story concurrent with the book’s release. However, current events made the intended timeframe impossible, as the narrative takes place when Yalta was still a sleepy, vacation destination and Crimea had not been annexed by Russian forces.

It is a testimony to Bezmozgis’ talent that the hefty ethical concerns of “The Betrayers”’ regarding ideological fealty, marital commitments and family obligations do not weigh the novel down with self-righteous polemics, and that its well-drawn characters are not upstaged by heavy-handed moralizing. In part, this is because the characters most often speak for themselves through sharp dialogue, for which Bezmozgis has a keen ear. Kotler excuses his recent affair with Leora and the ensuing scandal as the consequence of a marriage that was damaged as a result of the 13 years in which he was confined to the Gulag whilr Miriam was in Israel discovering religion. He tells Tankilevich, “if you wish to insist on the past then you can take credit for my mistress If I hadn’t been separated from my wife for thirteen years, it would never have happened.”

But Tankilevich, who has led an ignominious life of deception and poverty as a result of a different type of Soviet-victimization, is not a willing scapegoat. He lays bare the moral ironies of Kotler’s predicament with a crackling retort. “Say what you will, but you benefited from this Gulag Without those years where would you be?... Those thirteen years were your lottery ticket.” Having been a world-famous dissident has served Kotler well, and Tankilevich insists that he acknowledge his ironic good fortune.

This kind of dialogue lends “The Betrayers” a decidedly dramatic quality. While Bezmozgis’ debut effort, “Natasha and Other Stories” is now being adapted to the screen, “The Betrayers” seems a great fit for the stage, where one can easily imagine the dramatization of the palpable tension between the characters, the tempo of their angry banter and delivery of droll accusations. With its examination of breached trust in the political and personal spheres, the novel evokes plays such as Ariel Dorfman’s “Death and the Maiden” and Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” both of which focus on the personal betrayals that are so often the by-products of political tyranny.

Four years ago, The New Yorker magazine named Bezmozgis one of the 20 most promising writers under the age of 40. At that time, he had published only “Natasha and Other Stories, which was inspired by the author’s own biography. Though Bezmozgis showed a profound grasp of irony with his first release, his themes were typical of a young author -- adolescent angst, alienation, self-discovery. In his second work, “The Free World,” a novel published in 2011, he proved he had come of age, taking on the predicament of Soviet Jewish immigrants living temporarily in Rome in the 1970s while awaiting visas to the West. Expansive in plot and full of diverse characters, it showcased a writer whose novelistic powers had been realized.

It is in “The Betrayers,” however, that Bezmozgis emerges as not only a seasoned writer, but as one who is unafraid to examine what it means to try and live with honor, dignity and decency at a historical moment when those qualities are scarce. A novel in which every word counts, “The Betrayers” combines stylistic control, narrative ease and moral sophistication. To boot, Bezmozgis never forsakes humor and wit.

Near the end of the novel, Kotler visits the Hesed, and an elderly Jew tries to interest him in Yiddish conversation and a game of chess. Kotler declines, admitting he has the ability for neither. “’No Yiddish and no chess,’ the man chided. ‘What kind of Jew are you?’” With lines like that, “The Betrayers,” for all its gravitas, makes for a very enjoyable read.

Shana Rosenblatt Mauer is a Ph.D. candidate in English literature at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and a lecturer at both Herzog College and the Magid Institute.