The Betrayers: A Novel
By David Bezmozgis
Little, Brown and Company, 240 pages
Though he is often grouped with other American authors of Soviet Jewish lineage, notably Gary Shteyngart and Larisa Vapnyar, the novelist and short-story writer David Bezmozgis bears little relation to either or to anyone else. Stylistically, his prose is laconic. Aesthetically, he shuns postmodern games. Thematically, he does not fetishize the Soviet past or dwell on it obsessively. Most important, Jewishness is central to his work. Rather than treating it as something negative and superficial, or as an occasion for a mordant joke, Bezmozgis imbues Jewishness with rich meaning—historical, cultural, psychological, and moral. His first novel, The Free World (2012), is an uneven but unflinching work that depicts with tragic and poignant honesty a family of Soviet Jewish immigrants stuck in Rome on their way to America. Bezmozgis’s second novel, The Betrayers, firmly establishes him as a rare voice of moral seriousness in current American literature—and as perhaps the only philosophically Zionist novelist now at work in America.
In a recent lecture at Indiana University on the potential demise of American Jewish literature, Bezmozgis said: “The Jewish future is to be found in Israel. The Jewish past in Europe. Where in this equation is North America? Neither the future nor the past. Which begs the question: What kind of literature can be made of a place that, for Jews, represents neither the future nor the past? What role does America play in Jewish life, and by extension what kind of Jewish literature can be created here?” Bezmozgis’s assessment of the American Jewish past and future is debatable, but note how, in line with classical Zionism, he views Israel as the natural culmination of what he calls “the history of the Jewish nation.” The Betrayers is his artistic response and an attempt to write a Zionist novel for the 21st century.
The protagonist, Baruch Kotler, is a composite portrait of key Soviet Jewish dissidents (or “prisoners of Zion,” as they were called in Israel). The clearest real-life analogue to Kotler is Natan Sharansky, the human-rights activist who spent nine years confined in jails and penal colonies. Ever since he reached Israel in 1986, Sharansky has been a leading figure in his nation’s political life. The Betrayers presents Kotler at the moment of crisis: The Israeli government has decided to dismantle a block of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and Kotler, one of its ministers, refuses to go along with the decision. Blackmailed by the prime minister, he absconds with his young mistress to Crimea, where he had spent vacations as a child. In a coincidence straight out of Dickens, he encounters Vladimir Tankilevich, one of the last Jews of Crimea and a former KGB stool pigeon—the man who betrayed Kotler to the Soviet regime. Through these two archetypical characters, a traitor and a hero, Bezmozgis unravels the dilemmas of Zionism, Israel, and Jewishness.
The principal goal of Zionism was the normalization of the Diasporic Jew. In the infamous words attributed to David Ben Gurion, Zionism will be victorious only once Israel has its own thieves and prostitutes. A normal country requires its people to make normal compromises: individual, moral, and political. This is what Kotler cannot abide. After he learns from Tankilevich that the latter betrayed him, because the KGB had threatened to ruin his brother’s life if he didn’t cooperate, Kotler ruminates:
There are villains, but he is not one…He is an ordinary man who was ensnared in a villainous system. As for what I am, I don’t have a word for it. A saint or a hero might be someone else’s word, but not mine…When I was in prison and I knew that it would take only a single word from me to put an end to my suffering, I still could not bring myself to speak the word. It was like a plug in my throat. A moral plug. Impossible to dislodge…I saw at one end a narrow rank of villainy, and at the other a narrow rank of virtue…And I understood that the state of the world is the result of the struggle between these two extremes.
While Kotler sees no room for moral compromise (a concession to evil), Tankilevich insists on his moral right to elevate the personal (his brother’s safety) over the collective and ideological. The real-life Tankilevich was a man named Sanya Lipavsky, who betrayed Sharansky under very similar circumstances. The conflict is reminiscent of Dostoyevsky. Like him, Bezmozgis does not find an answer, but he does draw an analogy between the very specific challenge to his characters and the challenges facing an entire nation, and an entire people—in this case, Israel’s and the Jewish people’s.
Kotler bemoans the collapse of Israeli leadership and, more significantly, the increasing irrelevance of secular Zionism. Bezmozgis writes:
For Kotler, God and His law merely provided the influence for the inflection for the Jewish people. To be a Jew, one did not need to worship, only to be suitably inflected…Kotler knew many such people. Not only godless but God-averse. It was such people, after all, who had founded the country…For them the Bible was more a source of poetry and ancestral lore and less a guidebook for keeping house.
For his religious wife and son, as Kotler discovers, “the poetry and lore were inextricable from housekeeping.” His wife, who views their failed marriage through the prism of King David’s sins, and his soldier son, who refuses to obey the army’s orders to uproot the settlements because doing so would contradict Scripture, are at cross-purposes with Kotler’s secular civic values and sensibility. The rift between Kotler and his son is profound and echoes the divide in Israeli life. Not in possession of the divine word and afraid of those who claim to have it, Kotler wonders how he can convince the Israelis of the rightness of holding on to the West Bank. His “moral plug” seems to be ineffective in the face of pious militancy on the one hand and the quotidian desire for normalcy and quiet on the other. Kotler’s moral stiffness regarding the necessity of keeping the West Bank in Israeli hands does not preclude him from wondering how long Israel can hold on to the land without “another’s consent.” He soberly sees the prospects of such consent as very dim.
Whose betrayal can be forgiven and sustained: Tankilevich’s of Kotler, Kotler’s of his wife, his son’s of Kotler and the army, the Israeli government’s of its people? Sharansky’s fellow dissident, the physicist Alexander Voronel, argued in his influential memoir, The Trembling of Judaic Cares, “The total character of Jewish thinking demands either the denial of theory or the denial of reality which does not conform to this theory.” Kotler, who flees to Crimea to escape the burden of “Judaic cares” only to confront them there in all their nakedness, encapsulates such Jewish thinking.
The point of Bezmozgis’s novel is that in order to survive, Israel will have to find a way of reconciling Zionist theory to reality on the ground, or coming up with new theory, or changing facts on the ground. A tragic hero, Kotler personifies the problem. Is he the deadlock or the potential solution? That is what The Betrayers asks the reader to determine.
The Betrayers ends with Kotler and his mistress, whose sympathies lie with Tankilevich, flying back to Israel. Despondent, he muses that “his time had passed.” At the same time,
he remembered the night twenty-five years ago when he’d had his first glimpse of the land, the dark contours of Jerusalem scrolling by, the ancient city speckled with light, his heart stretched to the limit, as though pulled from above and below, his eyes welling with tears of primordial grief and thanksgiving, and the words of the Psalm resounding in his head in a strong mystical voice, When the Lord brought back those that returned to Zion, we were like dreamers. And he remembered…the throng of a thousand jubilant faces, who were already singing when he stepped from the plane.
David, King of Israel, lives, lives and endures!
This powerful passage brings to mind the conclusion of another novel, The Great Gatsby, when Nick Carraway recalls the splendor and wonder of the American dream and its unceasing appeal even in the midst of disillusionment and crisis. This is how Kotler—and, through him, Bezmozgis—thinks of Israel and the Zionist dream. But rather than Nick Carraway’s “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” Bezmozgis invokes the Messianic chant of the Talmud that has driven Jews ceaselessly into the future via the gate of remembrance: David, melech Israel, chai, chai, v’kayam.