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The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis

Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw

On the surface, The Betrayers is a tale of intransigence and its consequences. But from a different lens, it is also one of moral rectitude. Intentionally or unintentionally, Canadian author David Bezmozgis melds the two in an intense narrative of coming to grips with the past in a futile escape from the present.

Much of the novel mirrors the story of Natan Sharanksy, the idol of the Soviet refusenik movement, who after years in Soviet prisons was allowed to immigrate to Israel. The novel's protagonist, Baruch Kotler, is like Sharansky a former refusenik who becomes a minister in the Israeli government and leads an ultra-right-wing Russian immigrants' party that supports the settler movement in the Occupied Territories. Hardly, a sympathetic character you would think unless you are a refusenik nostalgist and diehard subscriber to the Greater Israel movement. Not quite. Bezmozgis skillfully takes Kotler out of the zero-sum polemics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to bring to life a flawed but somewhat still heroic individual capable of bending his strict moral values in a moment of compassion.

Kotler's first dilemma is to choose between opposing his own government on a key vote to dismantle some Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories or keeping his cabinet position. He chooses to go with his conscience and vote against the dismantling of the settlements. Although the government, even without Kotler and his party, has enough support to win the vote, Kotler's opposition to it would be a major political blow. So the Israeli prime minister decides to play hardball. For some time, Kotler has been in an extra-marital affair with Leora Rosenberg, his assistant, half his age. On the eve of the vote, an emissary is sent to Kotler with photos of the affair and the demand that he falls in line or face public humiliation. Kotler equates this threat with the tactics of the KGB against him when he was a dissident in the Soviet Union, and flatly refuses. The photos appear in the morning papers, and Kotler escapes with his mistress to the resort town of Yalta in the Crimea to allow the scandal to die down.

The plans of the fugitive couple to spend the week in a luxurious hotel fall apart because of a mix-up in their reservations, and they are forced to find private accommodations. They reluctantly opt for a room being let by a Russian woman, Svetlana, who claims her husband is one of Crimea's few remaining Jews. The couple's choice of accommodation leads to an unexpected outcome and closure of a difficult moment in Kotler's past.

Having been betrayed by his prime minister, Kotler now must deal with his own betrayal of his family in favour of his young mistress. Phone calls to his children reveal both the hurt that his children, young adults, feel over their father's flight with Leora to Crimea and contradictory positions taken by his daughter, Dafna, and his son, Benzion, on Kotler's decision to refuse to succumb to blackmail. Dafna is incapable of understanding why her father could not have saved the family from public disgrace by just going along with the vote. Benzion, a Yeshiva student serving in the army, supports his father's opposition to the vote and seeks his counsel on whether to refuse the order to physically dismantle the settlements. To neither children can Kotler give satisfactory answers. Nor can he meet the expectations of his young mistress who has waited so long for them to be together.

Kotler, once idolized by the Israeli public for his refusenik past and now publicly disgraced, begins to feel his failure. That is until an old adversary appears on the scene. Svetlana's husband is no other than Chaim Tankilevich, his former roommate who publicly denounced him thirty years before, resulting in a sentence of thirteen years in prison. His nemesis is now an ill, ageing man. When Kotler confronts Tankilevich, he does not find the victory he has dreamed of. Instead, Tankilevich obstinately refuses to explain why he denounced Kotler. But in the emotional parrying back and forth, and the interventions by Svetlana to defend her husband, the truth gradually emerges, and readers are presented with quite a different view of Kotler's betrayer.

The brilliance of Bezmozgis' writing is his ability to create intensity with an economy of words and a downtempo plot. In many ways, The Betrayers reads more like a short story than a novel, with its preponderance of inner dialogue over action, and the limited number of characters. Bezmozgis skilfully elevates his main characters, Kotler and Tankilevich, beyond their initial hero and villain dichotomy to invite his readers to understand them as human beings with difficult choices to make. This is reinforced by delegating his secondary characters to being essentially the bearers of consequences. Only Leora surfaces with brief emotional accessibility for the readers.

Published in 2014 by Harper Collins, The Betrayers has already become a classic work of literary fiction with a broad appeal to readers of all political convictions.

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