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People of the Book 101: David Bezmozgis’ Landscapes of Betrayal

Murray Citron
December 20, 2015

by Murray Citron

Discussed in this essay: The Betrayers, by David Bezmozgis. Little, Brown & Co., 2014, 256 pages.

&MaxW=640&imageVersion=default&AR-306139994A writer who begins his career with a short story in The New Yorker begins with a lot of attention. David Bezmozgis’ first book was Natasha and Other Stories, a collection dealing largely with people of his heritage, refuseniks from Soviet Latvia who made it to Toronto. It is a mix of magic and irony. He followed with a Giller Prize short-listed novel, The Free World, again about Latvian refuseniks.

The Betrayers, his next book, is a short novel. The people now are refuseniks from the Russian heartland, most of whom made it to Israel. It begins with the arrival in Yalta of Baruch Kotler, an important Israeli politician, and his beautiful young mistress, Leora. Kotler is described as “a pot-bellied little man.” He spent years in the Gulag and is famous. It is through character that he attracts a beautiful mistress, Leora, his secretary, the daughter of fellow refuseniks. She is, or was, a friend of Kotler’s daughter, son and wife.

Kotler and Leora have skipped out of Israel because he is being blackmailed, based on their affair, to end his opposition to a government plan to demolish West Bank settlements. (Kotler is evidently a character based upon Natan Sharansky.) In the background is a prime minister who is never named and doesn’t show up — and who, like Bibi Netanyahu, “was many things, but he was no amateur.”

All this becomes known in the first few pages. Bezmozgis’ narrative technique is skillful, with metaphors that are sharp and move the story along. This is near the beginning: “All the while, a current passed between him and Leora, like the invisible data that streamed between all the new machines.” This is near the end: “Kotler stood by the roadside. A truck plunged through the amplitude of dense air, and a wave of it washed over and staggered him. He had tried to do right, he thought, but had caused a great deal of hurt, even more than he’d expected.”

The action of the novel almost all takes place in Crimea. We learn what is happening back home the same way Baruch and Leora do, by way of cellphone. There are two plot strands: one that happens in Crimea and recalls the betrayal of Kotler by a Jewish KGB agent; another that happens back home and involves the settlements and Kotler’s family. The plot in Crimea has a logical conclusion. The plot back home has a conclusion that is logical, sensational, and completely unpredictable.

Nearly everybody in the book betrays somebody, as befits the title. Moral dilemmas sprout. The story is set in a fictional present. Russia has not yet annexed Crimea and Ukraine is not at war. Israel’s government looks like the one we know, but it is prepared to forcibly evacuate the settlements. Interestingly, the novel suggests that Russia and Ukraine are Middle-Eastern countries while Israel, at least part of the time, is a post-Soviet republic, with many Slavic ways of doing things.

And there is sex, as befits a good novel. There are Kotler and Leora, but also a number of older, hard-bitten women, and a horny rabb, all of whom project a sly eroticism onto the political landscape. The result is John Le Carre, edited by Edgar Allan Poe.

Murray Citron’s bilingual chapbook of poems by Itzik Manger, There is a Tree, steyt a boim, was published in 2011 by Tree Press, Ottawa. His translations have appeared in a number of periodicals in Canada, England, and the U.S.