Book review: David Bezmozgis’ ‘The Betrayers’

The Betrayers. David Bezmozgis. Little, Brown and Co. 240 pages. $26.
The Betrayers. David Bezmozgis. Little, Brown and Co. 240 pages. $26.

The second novel by Canadian author David Bezmozgis (following his justly acclaimed The Free World), provides an object lesson in the indispensability of backstory to good fiction. But it does so inadvertently, by not fleshing out its own. As a result, the cerebral elements of this short novel lack emotional intensity, and what could have emerged as a moving depiction of betrayal and redemption instead becomes talky exploration.

Baruch Kotler, a 64-year-old right wing Israeli politician and former refusenik (a Jew forbidden by the Soviet Union from emigrating to Israel) spent 13 years in USSR jails when his friend Volodya Tankilevich falsely branded him an American spy. (Kotler is clearly modeled in part on Natan Sharansky.)

In 2014, he travels to the Crimean resort town of Yalta for a vacation with his much younger mistress. The hotels are fully booked, and Kotler unwittingly rents an apartment room from Tankilevich’s wife. With Tankilevich due back shortly, a confrontation awaits.

“In his vanity, [Kotler] had always imagined meeting Tankilevich and his other former tormentors at the height of his powers, when he could gaze down upon them like a Zeus upon mortals,” writes Bezmozgis. But Kotler’s moral stature is taking a hit with the just-revealed news of his extra-marital affair. “It could be said that he was now as low as he had ever been and that he could not have chosen a less auspicious time for this momentous reunion.” Nevertheless, the delicious setup recalls Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and the Maiden, and sparks seem sure to fly.

Unfortunately, Bezmozgis drains the subsequent encounter of all tension by making Kotler more curious than indignant or vengeful and presenting us with an almost broken Tankilevich, who, though prickly, positively yearns for redemption. The confrontation peters out almost as soon as it begins. The problem is exacerbated by a separate issue: Kotler’s flashbacks to his time as a dissident and a prisoner in various jails (including a gulag) are fleeting and bereft of drama.

The Betrayers boasts virtues, though they aren’t quite redeeming. Bezmozgis provides an absorbing explanation for why the Jewish and purportedly Zionist Tankilevich, now “like an old elephant, a big gray beast sagging to the earth,” framed Kotler. The author also inserts other loyalty-related dilemmas into the story. Kotler’s role as an unfaithful husband slides right in and is accompanied by a poignant email he receives in which his wife grapples with his infidelity.

Meanwhile, Kotler denounces the Israeli government’s decision to evacuate illegal West Bank Jewish settlements, even as he opposes his soldier son’s decision to disobey military orders to that effect. He ponders whether his offspring’s obduracy recalls his own as a Soviet dissident, but this attempt to tack on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the narrative falls flat.

Ultimately, The Betrayers is an inchoate story. Not because it ends early or abruptly but because its dramatic potential remains unrealized. Betrayal and redemption are the stuff of searing emotion, the themes of some of the greatest works of literature. Here, they are put to more modest use.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer in Beirut, Lebanon