The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis, book review: Forceful testament to troubled times in Israel and Crimea

 

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Praise was showered on earlier books by David Bezmozgis (such as The Free World), and expectations were high for his new one. The Betrayers is a brave and ambitious novel – and its provocative theme could not be timelier. But does it match the author's earlier work?

Baruch Kotler is a Jewish dissident and Zionist who has been imprisoned in his native Russia. Once freed, he becomes an important politician in Israel, his persecution a badge of honour. However, after a blackmail attempt and a scandal over his mistress Loera – designed to neutralise his opposition to a Jewish withdrawal from Gaza – he is forced to flee Israel with Loera, arriving in the equally fraught Crimea.

He ends up at the house of Chaim Tankilevich, the man responsible for his being thrown into a Russian jail (Bezmozgis insouciantly braves accusations of unlikely coincidence here). Meanwhile Kotler's son Benzion, inspired by his father's principled resistance to a totalitarian regime, is prepared to risk his life – despite his father's pleas not to follow his example. And while the conflict between Kotler and Tankilevich is set in a Crimean locale, the author never allows us to forget the bitter battles taking place elsewhere, with neither Israelis nor Palestinians finding a way out of their bloody and destructive impasse.

But how good is The Betrayers? If great writers of the past spring to mind when reading the novel, that is perhaps suggestive of Bezmozgis's approach to his themes rather than an indication that he has earned his place on the slopes of Mount Parnassus.

Joseph Conrad's novel of imperialism and separatism, Nostromo, dealt with then-topical issues (as with Bezmozgis's treatment of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict here), but Conrad made universal points about human greed and the complex way in which societies split apart. Bezmozgis has managed to find a similar universality in the modern struggle he depicts – and even if the latter (against all evidence to the contrary) is ever resolved, The Betrayers will remain a powerful reminder of a fraught period in human history, though its larger application is to all such conflicts, grimly repeated throughout the ages.

The ex-dissident Kotler and his betrayer Tankilevich are rounded figures, even if they sometimes appear to be conduits for arguments that the author may be rehearsing in his own mind. Nevertheless, The Betrayers suggests that Bezmozgis may potentially be one of the most important writers of his generation.

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