Friday, October 16, 2015

The Betrayers

David Bezmozgis's novel about a 24-hour visit of a disgraced Israeli politician to Crimea has it all -- it is a novel of ideas, a love story, a political thriller, and a literary adventure into an exotic corner of the world. It deals with Jewish identity, Marxist ideology, fundamental notions of honor and integrity, and religious ideals of forgiveness and redemption -- and all this in 230 pages.

Baruch Kotler, a Soviet refusenik who became a cabinet minister in Israel, flees to Crimea with his mistress after their affair is exposed, nostalgically returning to the site of happy childhood vacation. Their hotel reservation is lost, so the couple takes a room in a private home from one of the many hustlers greeting tourists at the Yalta bus station. In a fateful coincidence that Bezmozgis somehow makes credible, the homeowner -- away when his wife successfully landed the couple -- was the former friend and Jewish dissident who had denounced Kotler in Moscow, leading to his spending 10 years in the Gulag.

The two couples spend the next 24 hours together in the small cottage, a drama that ranges from Chekhov to Tolstoy in its economy and sweep. Kotler, the victim of denunciation and long imprisonment, has prospered as a leading light in his new homeland, while Vladimir Tankilevich lives in penury, dependent on a stipend from the local Jewish charity that is dependent on his weekly attendance at the synagogue in Simferopol, a three-hour trolley ride each way.

Kotler left Israel at a critical moment when Jewish settlers were being forcibly removed, a controversial decision he reluctantly went along with and which provoked his own soldier son into open mutiny. He feels he must return to Israel immediately. It is a fateful turning point in his life -- his affair is almost certainly over but his return to his wife is not certain, any more than his rehabilitation in Israeli politics. Crucially, Kotler must decide how to resolve the chance reunion with his nemesis.

The novel's title has betrayers in plural. Tankilevich betrayed Kotler in Moscow, but Kotler betrayed his wife and family with his affair. The novel turns on whether Tankilevich and Kotler once again betray their principles in their encounter with each other. It is a poignant and moving drama, with Svetlana, Tankilevich's Russian wife, and Leora, Kotler's young mistress, acting as mirrors to reflect the tension between the two men. Kotler's wife in Israel, Miriam, also plays a role through a long email letter that blames him and forgives him.

Bezmozgis's deft evocation of a down on its heels tourist site that nonetheless has a geopolitical role to play makes it the perfect setting for his morality play. It permits him to compress ideas and events into an intimate drama and leave a reader not only satisfied but moved.

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