Suspend Your Disbelief

The Betrayers, by David Bezmozgis

"History often surprises."

Reviews |

The Betrayers, by David Bezmozgis

"Even though recent history might seem to have betrayed Bezmozgis’ intentions, what’s important in The Betrayers are the people who live, toil, and suffer in Crimea and Israel-Palestine."

1. The Refusenik Escapes

In his newest novel, The Betrayers, recently published by Little, Brown and Company, David Bezmozgis has written a political drama about both nationalism and, as the title indicates, ideological betrayal. The characters of this drama have led lives directly involved with world politics of the last half century. According to an interview with Bezmozgis by The Guardian, the novel’s protagonist, Baruch Kotler, is based on Natan Sharansky, a real-life Soviet refusenik, who, like Kotler, spent thirteen years in Soviet prison. Also, like Kotler, after his release Sharansky immigrated to Israel and eventually became a member of the Knesset.

Kotler has traveled to Crimea with his mistress, Leora, and it’s here that a coincidental rendezvous marks where the novel begins to depart from history. The last time Kotler was on the peninsula was fifty-four years ago, when it was a Soviet resort setting, in a halcyon moment of his childhood. Since all the hotels are booked, they try the bus station, where incoming busses are met by people letting rooms in their private domiciles for a bit of extra income. Leora is wary of the pushiest landlady, Svetlana, not Jewish herself but married to a Jew from the former Soviet territories. “Call it curiosity. Call it instinct,” Kotler says to Leora in order to justify their somewhat reckless decision to take a room under the roof of another Jew from the Soviet Union—in other words, somebody who might recognize Kotler, perhaps his mistress too. After settling in the room on the first night, after Svetlana’s husband has come home, history suddenly comes back to haunt Kotler:

A movement in the window drew his eye and Kotler turned from the black absorption of the mountains. Faster than a thought, his knees buckled, responding to an overwhelming impulse to drop to the ground, to get out of sight. Kotler caught himself, and stood rigidly, his knees still slightly and comically bent. Blood battered his heart as if to dislodge it. The fear was one he hadn’t known in untold years.

This passage deftly renders this heart-dislodging fear, which comes “faster than a thought” before Kotler’s delayed recognition of the figure in the window. All we find out before the next chapter is that this figure is a man, Svetlana’s husband, somebody whom Kotler seems to know. But once he has regained his composure and returned to Leora, he takes his time telling her that they have rented a room in the house of Vladimir Tankilevich, the former KGB informant whose denouncement of Kotler in one of the Soviet Union’s newspapers of record, Izvestia, led to the dissident’s arrest, imprisonment, and emigration: in other words the entire trajectory of his life until this moment.

This pre-rational fear underscores how deeply Tankilevich has affected Kotler’s life, since it contrasts so sharply with his otherwise calm and confident character, established from the novel’s beginning through his keen attention to his surroundings and assurance about his decisions. Kotler is a man who trusts his principles and his instincts, which have often been the only resources available to the dissident in times of persecution. The latest crisis in his life has to do with Kotler’s opposition to the Israeli prime minister’s planned withdrawal from the occupation of the West Bank. An attempt at blackmail by the prime minister, rejected by Kotler, has resulted in pictures of him with Leora showing up in Israel’s newspaper of record, Haaretz. Kotler’s stubborn opposition has turned the betrayed refusenik into a betrayer politician. His take on the situation in Israel is a free-indirect expression of utter disappointment:

Then there were the obligatory quotes from the various factions. The same choir singing the same song. The prime minister cited defensible borders and the welfare of the Israeli state. The chief of staff spoke of the army’s inviolable discipline. The Left rejoiced. The Right seethed. The Americans applauded. The settlers pledged bloody insurrection. And the Palestinians complained.

The “choir’s same song” gives off a tone of weary displeasure with Israeli politics at large. The passage’s repetition of same and the metaphor of a song also generalize about these “various factions.” Each member of the choir knows its part in this song, as if they all shared one fundamental political spectrum. One faction, such as the settlers, might think another—the party in power—has betrayed it. But, fundamentally, each is performing its part in the overall concert, except perhaps for the last faction mentioned, the Palestinians, the object of whose complaint is missing, as if cut from the concert altogether. Kotler’s assessment of what will happen is “nothing good,” so he trusts what he has left: his instincts. These instincts belong to his core, the part of his self older than the part that has gone through so many literal trials and tribulations, the part from his childhood, a month of which was spent vacationing in Crimea, likely the reason he has traveled there to escape all the scandal in his life.

2. Fiction and History

Bezmozgis chose Crimea as a setting long before the actual events of this year, which have launched the peninsula into the news and, from a cynic’s point of view, created a perfect-storm publicity campaign for The Betrayers. Setting his novel in Crimea might not have seemed so risky in terms of fiction matching history when Bezmozgis began writing, since four years ago the peninsula was much the same as it had been from the end of the Soviet Union until the recent annexation by Russia this spring.

It was this political upheaval that Bezmozgis was addressing when he published what is now an afterword to The Betrayers, an essay titled “The Novel in Real Time: A Note from the Author,” which originally appeared in the March 13 issue of The New Yorker. In this piece, Bezmozgis admits that, of both settings, he was more wary of Israel-Palestine than of Crimea. In March, Crimea’s—instead of Israel-Palestine’s—political upheaval was still an ironic surprise for Bezmozgis.

The BetrayersHistory often surprises. The afterword piece mentions a 1961 essay by Philip Roth titled “Writing American Fiction,” in which Roth discusses the difficulty of writing about the United States’ weird culture, with characters often stranger than fiction. Some American writers escape to other parts of the world, other cultures, other content, in order to rediscover a kind of moral sense that, perhaps, Roth suspects as lacking in the U.S. in 1961.

With The Betrayers Bezmozgis escapes the context of North America—as much as a novel can in our shrinking, globalized world—but he nonetheless sticks close to the reality of the settings through his insightful characterization. Instead of writing about other parts of the world to make some kind of Realpolitik prediction of what will happen, Bezmozgis’ depiction comes through the perspectives of the characters who live there. Even though recent history might seem to have betrayed Bezmozgis’ intentions, what’s important in The Betrayers are the people who live, toil, and suffer in Crimea and Israel-Palestine. By virtue of this, a reader can suspend disbelief about the novel’s depiction of the withdrawal from the West Bank, which is almost the complete inverse of the current reality juxtaposed to the novel.

Actually, recent history compliments Bezmozgis’ novel, because the difference between it and the novel is the world’s fault, not Bezmozgis’, who instead of trying to escape history—as Roth might have suggested—has been attempting to write very close to reality for the past four years. A reader of The Betrayers, then, must consider the politics of Israel-Palestine and the Crimean peninsula, almost as if to figure out where history went wrong.

3. Common Ground

Returning to Crimea and considering recent events on the peninsula, a reader might find another example of history’s commentary on the novel, or the novel’s commentary on history. In 1944, over two hundred thousand Tatars were deported from the Crimean peninsula. As a result, a Tatar dissident movement began in the Soviet Union, and in The Betrayers one of its activists was a cellmate of Kotler’s. Needless to say, Crimean Tatars supported an independent Ukrainian state, with which they united against a common enemy. As a young ethnic Russian disdainfully explains to Kotler, the Tatars are reclaiming open land by building primitive dwellings on it.

The similarity to Israel-Palestine is not lost on Kotler. To Leora he mentions an interesting piece of history about Crimea before World War II—when Tatars and Jews lived there together, along with many other ethnic groups:

—Imagine, Kotler said to Leora, this could have been the Jewish homeland. Then the Tatars and the Russians could have demanded we go back to where we belong, as the Palestinians do now.

This reframing of the political situation in Israel-Palestine is a sample of Kotler’s wry sense of humor. But the difference between the Palestinians’ part in the same old song and that of the other factions comes to light again.

To Kotler the Palestinians’ part is merely used for this ironic anecdote, not very amusing to Leora, who doesn’t dignify it with a response. But Kotler’s analogy is actually very apt, especially if the reader considers the difference between Crimea now and the Crimea depicted in The Betrayers. The Tatars, now faced with Russian rule that will probably be more hostile to their reclamation project than Ukrainian rule was, have no stake in the new nationalism that has taken hold of Crimea. Even though Kotler says that Tatars and Russians would be like the Palestinians if Crimea were the Zionist homeland, in the current political situation Russian nationalism will be more like Zionism.

This throws into relief a seminal matter with regard to betrayal: the need for a common ground, in this novel a dedication to Zionism. Anybody without such dedication, anybody unfamiliar or in disagreement with the nationalist movement can be neither betrayer nor betrayed, only bystander or enemy. Tankilevich, then, in order to have been a betrayer, must have been well established in the Refusenik movement when he turned on Kotler. Otherwise, his denouncement would only have been the act of any upright citizen of the Soviet Union, by that time ideologically opposed to Zionism.

4. The Original Betrayer

Instead of becoming a Jewish homeland, a Crimean Israel became another victim of Joseph Stalin’s campaign against Soviet Jews. In The Betrayers, what’s left of this community subsidizes those Jews remaining and struggles to maintain the minyan, or the quorum for religious services. Barely supporting him and his wife, the pension given to Tankilevich by the Jewish Community Center in Simferopol comes with a price, however: since he is a known KGB informant, Tankilevich must assume an alias. Also, he must ride the bus from Yalta every Saturday to attend services in order to reach the minyan, what is known as batlanus.

This part of the narrative is within the perspective of the original betrayer himself, Tankilevich, on his long and penitential Sabbath ride to Simferopol. Like Kotler, Tankilevich suspects a Russian-speaking Jew might know who he is. He expects trouble, judgment from his tenant, in the same way Kotler expects the same from any “Russian Jew” the world over. The parallel characters are a perfect dramatic match in that together they oppose one another, but apart their similarities suggest there should be no conflict, that perhaps they share the same belief and goal in the end.

Tankilevich is pitiable from his first scene on, at least as pitiable as Kotler is admirable. Despite his history, Tankilevich claims to be a Zionist, defending his act of betrayal by saying that he, like Kotler, was a victim of blackmail. The pitiable old man’s regular rides on a rickety bus, years after Kotler’s persecution has ended, begin to feel like undeserved punishment, past time served.

Tankilevich can even come off as more pitiable than Kotler, since he has not succeeded at moving beyond the decrepit fringe of the post-Soviet world. The great and true irony of Tankilevich’s betrayal of Kotler is that Tankilevich, in the end, has come out in much worse shape. Again, similarly, Kotler is also in a state of disgrace, also hiding in Crimea. The difference between the conditions of betrayer and betrayed is even further blurred. Tankilevich calls his denunciation of Kotler a “lottery ticket” for Kotler into the Israeli politician’s current, more advantageous position. Thirteen years in Soviet prison is contrasted to forty years in the Soviet and post-Soviet world, and being a KGB informant was hardly beneficial then and is certainly a stigma now in independent Ukraine. Tankilevich’s alternative logic suggests that he has a desire to be someplace else. That place is Israel, strengthening his claim that he was always a Zionist, even when he was denouncing Kotler’s activism in Izvestia.

5. Fundamental Zionism

Zionism is the common ground on which all of the betrayals in this novel play out. Other books having to do with Israel-Palestine, such as Robert Stone’s Damascus Gate, mostly involve characters who have less stake in Zionism than the characters in The Betrayers do. Kotler’s disillusionment with Israeli politics and his mention of Crimea as formerly a potential homeland for the Jews reflect attitudes of a character so invested in his dedication that he can challenge it, withstand blackmail and accusations of betrayal, and still count himself as one of Zionism’s champions.

Other characters in The Betrayers can only compare their own moral choices based on this reckoning of what is and isn’t a betrayal of this fundamental dedication to the movement. When Kotler’s son, Benzion, a soldier in the Israeli Defense Force, receives orders to oversee the withdrawal from the West Bank, he’s troubled by what he sees as the Israeli state’s betrayal of the settlers. He considers becoming an Israeli refusenik—that is, going AWOL, albeit not out of concern for the Palestinians. Despite Kotler’s stance against the withdrawal and his assurance to Benzion that he and his son share the same position, the seasoned politician urges his son to follow orders. Kotler’s allegiance to the military’s authority trumps allegiance to the settlers.

Again, betrayal depends on a disharmony within the purview of a greater shared dedication to Zionism. The settlers represent the more extreme, fundamentalist version of the nationalist movement, opposite the prime minister and his allies—Liberal Zionists, perhaps—who may support this withdrawal, at least from the West Bank, as what they consider a just concession to the Palestinians there, who have no choice in the matter whatsoever.

Kotler explains his family’s inclination toward the settlers as a result of the thirteen years he and his wife were apart when he was in prison:

The state of Israel rebuffed her. Because I’d involved myself in the larger human rights movement, I wasn’t Zionist enough for them […] So who embraced her and who helped her? The religious. The settlers.

This passage suggests that Kotler’s “other involvements,” not appreciated by some Zionists, might be what caused him to make such a veiled criticism as his analogy about the Tatars and the Palestinians. Kotler’s dedication has to do with his stubbornness, his faith in the movement, a faith that goes beyond him as an individual with his doubts or “other involvements.”

6. “Russian Jews”

Whether on the left or the right, whether in Tel Aviv or Crimea, the characters in The Betrayers share to greater or lesser degree this general and unwavering dedication to Zionism. The goal of Zionism, the Jewish homeland, is what Soviet refuseniks, even betrayers like Tankilevich, kept in their mind’s eye as the Heaven after Soviet Hell. The Betrayers is a story of these people, who come from the larger group of ex-Soviet, or “Russian,” Jews. “Russian Jews” are, arguably, the greatest influence on today’s Israel. They make up the fastest-growing ethnic group of Israeli-Jewish society, which has perhaps welcomed them as demographic ballast to the growing Palestinian population.

David BezmozgisIt’s understandable that Jews wanted to leave the Soviet Union. Programs such as Operation Exodus aided emigration, and encouragement hardly seemed necessary when one hears about the open anti-Semitism that is ongoing in much of the former Soviet territory. It seems commonsensical to say that the social issues for Jews in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as the persecutions Jews faced, promoted emigration to Israel. In a sense, these issues promoted Zionism.

It’s no wonder Bezmozgis now writes about “Russian Jews” with an eye on Zionism. In the interview with The Guardian, Bezmozgis says he, as a Jew, feels connected to Israel. He mentions how The Betrayers differs from his first two books. In Bezmozgis’ debut collection, Natasha and Other Stories (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), for example, Israel and Zionism come up much more indirectly, in some instances as remembered allegations and mockeries from the mouths of Soviet anti-Semites. Those Jews who eventually left the Soviet Union, whether to Israel or North America, remember this opposing stance, and it’s likely they’ll never forget it. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, right? In “The Second Strongest Man in the World,” one of the stories in Natasha, Zionism is attributed to the Jewish characters in the Soviet world as a mockery, whether or not those characters dedicated themselves to it or became refuseniks.

This discriminative generalization might, in the end, inversely lead to its victim embracing and internalizing the identity foisted upon him. This is similar to the way some African-Americans reclaim the n-word, some homosexuals the epithet queer. Unjustly labelling them as betrayers, telling them their country isn’t where they’ve lived since birth but instead Israel, even if few of them have ever been there, could have the cumulative effect of confining these people’s identity to the part of it that is oppressed. When we define ourselves, we often start with the obstacles we’ve overcome. This can lead to a person finding a new common ground, perhaps a collective identity connected to Israel, perhaps with a shared dedication to Zionism, which is what finally brings Kotler and Tankilevich to an understanding. When they part ways, Tankilevich still hopes to immigrate to Israel one day with Kotler’s help. And Kotler, despite returning in more of a state of disgrace than when he first arrived in Israel long ago, is glad to be coming back to what he now considers his home. Israel continues to be an object of hope for both the betrayer and the betrayed.

Whether or not a reader understands or agrees with Zionism, the effect of Bezmozgis’ writing, the depth of his characters, is poignant and captivating. Awareness of recent history in Israel-Palestine and Crimea adds to the appeal of The Betrayers, since such clear and insightful storytelling sheds light on the real tragedies taking place. If only nobody were dying and those locked in conflict could talk it through, find common ground. If only those outsiders who have no say in the politics that otherwise dominate their lives could find some hope, whether as betrayers or betrayed, in history instead of only in a work of fiction.

Literary Partners