‘The Betrayers’ by David Bezmozgis
David Bezmozgis is the rarest of fiction writers, the kind who should be henceforth known as A-Writer-Whose-Books-Should-Have-No-Chance-of-Even-Being-Decent-Let-Alone-Brilliant-Which-They-Somehow-Are. Saul Bellow’s great “Henderson the Rain King” was this sort of book, a novel about a wealthy, self-destructive, white goofus American pig farmer who decides to chuck it all and travel to Africa in attempt to find himself, and ends up having long, heartfelt, philosophical discussions with his platonic soul mate, an African king named Dahfu, whom Henderson often addresses in this fashion: “So, it’s a real wowzer, Your Highness.” Bellow’s 1959 work, for, and because of, all its ridiculousness, was one of best American novels of the latter half of the 20th century; Bezmozgis’s “The Betrayers” (his third book, and second novel), while ridiculous in a different way than “Henderson,” is similarly stubborn, brave, perverse, infuriating, wise, and utterly his own.
“The Betrayers” begins as Baruch Kotler and his much younger mistress, Leora, arrive in the Crimean seaside city of Yalta. Kotler is a married Israeli politician (and famous former refusenik and political prisoner in the Soviet Union) whose political opponents have revealed his affair with Leora, who is also a good friend of Kotler’s daughter. Kotler and Leora attempt to escape the political, personal, and media fallout by taking a trip to Yalta, which Kotler remembers fondly from his childhood vacations there with his parents.
When they arrive there, however, they are met not with leis, or vodka, but with an authorial roadblock disguised as a hotel clerk’s incompetence: The room they’ve booked has apparently been given to someone else. So Kotler and Leora retreat to the bus station, where out of the many people holding signs advertising rooms for rent, they end up choosing one in a house owned by Svetlana and her husband, Chaim, whom Kotler and Leora don’t end up meeting until after they’ve stayed in the house for one night — a good thing, because Chaim, it turns out, is none other than the man who betrayed Kotler to the KGB in Moscow 40 years earlier!
This is what I mean when I say that “The Betrayers” is ridiculous, and that it should be terrible, and that it is a testament to Bezmozgis’s skill, and stubbornness, that it is not. For Bezmozgis, the important thing is not how to plausibly get Chaim and Kotler in the same room, but that they get there quickly, and in a way that suggests that despite their mighty efforts, none of the characters are truly in charge of his or her own story — Kotler recognizes this when he says to Svetlana, “There is no fault; there is no blame and no praise either, but we are all held accountable” — and also in a way that suggests that if the reader is looking to the novel for the pleasures of plausibility, well, perhaps the reader should look for something else.
Luckily for the reader, there are plenty of other pleasures to be found in “The Betrayers.” For instance, Bezmozgis (who was born in Riga, Latvia, in 1973, and immigrated to Canada with his family when he was six) is startlingly good at using brief, epigrammatic sentences to illuminate an entire people (“Was there another people who approached the phenomenon of leisure as systematically as the Russians?”) and a people’s narrative (“Now it was coming to a close, like all Jewish stories came to a close, with suitcases.”).
Likewise, Bezmozgis is especially attuned to the absurdities inherent in an exile’s return home, as Kotler recognizes when he and Leora visit Yalta’s “Lenin Square, where, framed heroically by the Crimean Mountains, the bronze Bolshevik still stood on his pedestal looking intently out to sea — and peripherally, at a McDonald’s.” But mostly, the reader takes great pleasure in discovering what will come out of this meeting between Chaim and Kotler, Svetlana and Leora, as they argue at length (another thing that should be terribly stagey, and ridiculous, but is instead quite great), about their past and future, about who gets to be called a villain, and who a hero (especially apt in a novel about Russia, Ukraine, and Crimea, and also about Israel, and particularly since throughout the book Kotler’s son, who is in the Israeli Army, is agonizing about whether to obey orders to tear down a settlement).
I don’t want to spoil the ending of this remarkable, ebullient, tough-minded novel, but maybe it’s enough to say that at the beginning it’s as difficult to imagine how the characters are going to survive the lives they’ve made for each other, and themselves, as it is to imagine how Bezmozgis is going to make the novel work. But at the end of the novel, the reader is very grateful that they did, and he does.
Brock Clarke’s sixth book, the novel “The Happiest People in the World,’’ will be published in November.