STARRED REVIEW
October 2014

Emotions run high in a Crimean resort

By David Bezmozgis
Anyone who thinks the compact novel of ideas is dead would do well to turn to Canadian writer David Bezmozgis’ second novel, The Betrayers. In scarcely more than 200 pages, this tension-packed story explores themes of betrayal, forgiveness, moral courage and its opposite that are both contemporary and timeless.
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Anyone who thinks the compact novel of ideas is dead would do well to turn to Canadian writer David Bezmozgis’ second novel, The Betrayers. In scarcely more than 200 pages, this tension-packed story explores themes of betrayal, forgiveness, moral courage and its opposite that are both contemporary and timeless.

The action takes place in the present day, over a period of 24 hours, in the Crimean resort town of Yalta. Baruch Kotler, an Israeli politician, has fled there with his aide and lover Leora after their affair is exposed by his political opponents. But what’s more intriguing than his current embarrassment is his encounter with Chaim Tankilevich, a former friend whose denunciation some four decades earlier had condemned Kotler, a Soviet Jewish dissident, to 13 years in the Gulag. The aged and ailing Tankilevich has enacted a sort of penance for that act in the form of the painful three-hour bus ride he takes each Saturday to attend the slowly dying Jewish Sabbath service in the town of Simferopol.

In a series of emotionally fraught conversations, Bezmozgis skillfully manipulates the tension between the two men and Tankilevich’s wife, Svetlana, embittered by the straitened circumstances in which she and her husband live as a result of his long-ago treachery. Tankilevich offers a plausible, if self-serving, justification for that choice, while Kotler coolly withholds the absolution the couple desperately demands. “I gave, but I was forced,” Tankilevich responds to Kotler’s condemnation. “Everyone was forced. Some nevertheless managed to resist,” replies his former friend. Kotler’s apparent perch atop the moral high ground is compromised by his own infidelity and his response to his son’s conscience-stricken refusal to obey IDF officers’ orders to eject Israeli settlers from their homes.

Bezmozgis refuses to pass judgment on these characters, almost daring us to do so. There are no saints, and perhaps no sinners, in the bleak world he so meticulously creates, only flawed human beings struggling to navigate a moral universe painted here in shades of gray.

 

This article was originally published in the October 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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The Betrayers

The Betrayers

By David Bezmozgis
Little, Brown
ISBN 9780316284332

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