The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis

betrayersThe Betrayers (Little, Brown & Co, 267 pages) begins with a Russian expression on a young woman’s face. A pretty blonde woman working as hotel clerk in Yalta is berated by a young woman from Israel, who insists she be given a room. The clerk “endured the assault with a stiff, mulish expression. A particularly Russian sort of expression, Kotler thought. The morose, disdainful expression with which the Russians had greeted their various invaders. An expression that denoted an irrational, mortal refusal to capitulate—the pride and bane of the Russian people.”

The author fails to explain that this mask of moroseness is the default look of any Russian walking any street, in Russia or elsewhere, and whether under immediate attack or not. And, as the rest of this book demonstrates, Russians—and Ukrainians, basically the same thing—have a thousand years of bloody and brutal history, during which time they have learned that adversity is always near at hand, which adversity must be kept at bay with that morose face. At one time I was innocent enough to believe this to be a Soviet face. Not so. It was there long before Lenin and his henchmen came along, and it remains the same now that the Great Experiment is dead and buried.

The main protagonist of the story, an Israeli, Baruch Kotler, knows Russia and Russian adversity well, since he was born in the Soviet Union under the name Boris Solomonovich Kotler. Almost all of the Russian Jews in this novel have new names now, in accord with their having attained to what at one time they thought of as the promised land of Zion (which, when they arrived, turned out to be not quite Zion after all). But that is one big message of the book: that there is no promised land. You can change your name, you can emigrate to another country, but the Russianness is still in your blood. Can you take that look off your face? Go to Israel and get on a bus. The look will be there in a seat or hanging from a strap, at least if there is one Russian Jew on the bus.

The novel’s title is especially appropriate, since the story line treats betrayals of various sorts. The reader is unware at the beginning, but by the end of the novel the author has made clear that even a person steeped in rectitude is hard put to get through life without betraying someone or something. Prominent is the story of Kotler and his betrayer, Vladimir Tankilevich—who now goes by “Chaim,” and who once was Vladimir Tarasov, courtesy of the KGB. Kotler lived in the USSR for years as a refusenik, denied permission to emigrate to Israel. His wife Miriam was allowed to emigrate, but he remained. Then his roommate Tankilevich, in an attempt to save his own scapegrace brother, gave in to KGB pressure and denounced Kotler as a traitor. He was arrested and spent thirteen years imprisoned, before finally being released. Greeted in Israel as a national hero, Kotler made a new life for himself there as a political operative, a famous politician. He and Miriam achieved the dream of having children who “dream their dreams in Hebrew.”

As the book begins, however, another betrayal is in the works. Kotler, now a bald, pot-bellied man in his sixties, has fallen for a young woman (once Lena, now Leora) and betrayed his wife. At the very moment that he is embroiled in a controversial political fight over withdrawing Israelis by force from the settlements—Kotler is opposed to giving these lands back to the Palestinians—politicians on the other side attempt to compromise him with photographs of Kotler in the company of Leora.

The more things change the more they stay the same. This is another theme of The Betrayers. The intelligence agent who meets with Kotler in an attempt to blackmail him, identified only as Amnon, uses pure KGB tactics. The political scene in Israel “at the best of times is no place for gentle souls.”  Himself an ironist, Kotler is constantly aware of the irony implicit in his situation. As the book opens he and Leora, in an attempt to flee the personal scandal and the political turmoil, fly to Yalta for something of a vacation. Meanwhile (one more irony) Kotler’s son Benzion, doing his military service, is forced to evacuate the settlers, which puts him at odds with his conscience. Near the end of the novel he turns out to be one of the non-betrayers in the story, when he deliberately wounds himself to avoid herding out the settlers.

Upon their arrival in Yalta, Kotler and Leora walk into the biggest irony of all. By pure coincidence they take rooms in the house of the very man responsible (in a roundabout way) for their being together: Tankilevich the betrayer. At one point Tankilevich’s wife Svetlana—one of the few main characters who is not Jewish; she is an Orthodox believer—makes much of how God, possibly in answer to her prayers, has arranged for this meeting of the old antagonists. A believer in the Zionist dream (or at least once he was), Kotler is not much of a believer in God, and his present predicament rather suggests the old story about God’s nasty brother. Once in a while, so the tale goes, God needs a vacation, so he leaves things in control of his evil finagling brother while He is away.

That mean little brother, sometimes it appears that he is in charge nearly all the time, while the weary Lord perpetually vacations. The brother laughs and grins his evil grin as he goes about his scheming, screwing things up right and left, both in the personal lives of people and in the political fortunes of countries. The biggest swindle of all depicted in The Betrayers is, in cosmological terms, what came out of the collapse of the Soviet Union: the new “free and democratic” Russia, the new “free and democratic” Ukraine, and so on fifteen times in all (for the fifteen “new, free and democratic” countries left over from the Soviet republics). As always in the broad scope of Russian history, a few swindlers are in like Flynn, but a huge percentage of the common people are screwed. “From one grand deception to another was their lot. First the Soviet sham, then the capitalist. For the ordinary citizen these are just two different varieties of poison. The current variety served in a nicer bottle.”  But, of course, for Russians the Soviet sham was not the first. In the grand schema of Russian history there were a plethora of shams long before Communism came along.

The author’s description of Crimea could be the description of practically anywhere in post-Soviet provincial Russia or Ukraine: “cement bus shelters and the blank-eyed men who sat on their haunches beside them.” The only thing missing in this book is the alcohol, which, for some reason, Bezmozgis fails to feature. At least half of those blank-eyed men on their haunches (smoking, always smoking) will be drunk. The Russian reality: lots of things have changed in the past thousand years, but, essentially, nothing has changed. This revelation comes on page 4, but the whole rest of the book demonstrates its truth. Of course, the Russian Jews depicted in Yalta and Simferopol are no better off than the Russians or the Crimean Tartars there, but oppressed people are spiteful to extremes, so the oppressed Russians, naturally, hate the oppressed Jews and Tartars, who, naturally, hate the oppressed Russians and Jews, etc. Since this book was published Crimea has gone back to Russia, but you can bet that the people of the Crimean Peninsula are living with the same problems as always.

“What does a Jew do? A Jew gets by” (cited in Hebrew). What does a Russian do? Same thing. The novel is full of fine descriptions of ordinary people, getting nowhere, pushing on with their lives. We have the Russians on vacation in Yalta, taking the sun and waters “with conviction and diligence.”  Back in the day Kotler and his parents had been there sunbathing among those Russians in Yalta, standard citizens of Sovdepia. What does a human being do? Same thing. Kotler’s father, fast in his day, trains his son, who is hopelessly slow, as a sprinter, while sarcastic neighbors chant the age-old taunt: жид, жид, на веревочке бежит (to get the rhyme, something like, “Kike, Kike, riding on a bike” but the literal meaning is “Kike, kike, running on a string”).

A stick with two ends, палка о двух концах, the Russian expression for something that cuts two ways. Except that life, as this novel so amply expresses, cuts all different sorts of ways. Who is guilty and who is innocent? It depends–on a lot of things. Tankilevich the traitor is, perhaps, more to be pitied than reviled, given the circumstances of his betrayal, and given how egregiously he has had to pay for that act over a lifetime. At one point Leora herself, certainly aware of her guilt in betraying her friend, Kotler’s daughter, as well as the whole Kotler family, confesses that in similar circumstances she may not have been able to hold out any better than Tankilevich did.

“After all, guilt and innocence were not fixed marks. There were extenuating circumstances. Wasn’t this the governing logic of the times? That cause and effect could not be easily disambiguated? That all was up for revision and nobody durst speak of an absolute truth?”

So make a choice, people, even when the alternatives may be equally bad. That’s what the KGB forces Tankilevich to do, and after he makes his choice he has a lifetime to live with it. Kotler chooses to betray his wife, later chooses to flee with his mistress. Bad choices. The choices of the Jews always seem to end with suitcases. This crosses Kotler’s mind as he and Leora, near the end of the book, “picked their way through the vacationers toward the Internet café,”  pulling their suitcases behind them.

Tankilevich the compromiser is the last Jew in Crimea. “Capricious fate had cast him as the final link in the long chain of Crimean Jewry. A chain that stretched back more than a thousand years to the Khazars, the last Jewish warriors and emperors, if legend was to be believed. The Khazars, the Krymchaks, the Karaites. And, in the past century, the doomed farming colonists and Yiddish poets who had imagined a homeland in Crimea, a New Jerusalem to supplant the Old. Now it was coming to a close, like all Jewish stories came to a close, with suitcases.”

Today the suitcases are out again, e.g., in France, where, fearing for their lives in face of Islamic terror, the Jews are on the move again. Recently Vladimir Putin publicly commented on the sad state of affairs. “They can’t even walk the streets with a yarmulke on their heads. Let them come back home to us, we are prepared to receive them.” Duh.

The prominent message of The Betrayers is that things are always going to be more complicated than they seem, and every choice one makes in life is more complicated than it should be. Wins can end up losses and losses wins. God in his wisdom can often be a practical joker; either He or His brother, that is. But even if God is basically altruistic, a Good Lord, can we ever forgive him for that brother of his? Kotler is put on trial twice, the first time in the Soviet Union (accused, unjustly, of treason), the second time in Israel (accused, unjustly, by his own co-dissidents) of spying for the KGB. In the USSR he is convicted but comes away invigorated, the heroic refusenik, who basks in his glory upon reaching the home of the Jews. In Israel he is acquitted but comes away wounded, having somehow been deprived of his former heroic gloss. Nobody, so it seems, is a hero for long. The refusniks have their downside: “There were nearly as many deviations in their ranks as there had been among the Marxists at the time of the revolution. Not to mention the purely personal rivalries and antagonisms. . . . Dissidents were by nature contrary.”  A stick with two ends.

Bezmozgis presents characters from several different cultures here: Israelis, Russian Jews, Ukrainians, Russians. He presents no Palestinians, but they are there, looming in the background of the action. At one point a Crimean Jewish character expresses a one-sided view, held by Jews all over (but not all Jews). The speaker is one Podolsky, who has lived in Israel but has mysteriously returned to Crimea.

“What do Arabs do? They throw rocks. They attack innocent women and children. They shoot rockets. If they pay a few shekels in tax, where does the money go? To their crooked Palestinian officials, who, if such a thing is possible, are more corrupt than our Ukrainian ones.”  There is no spokesman for the Palestinians in the book, but the Palestinian problem, for Israel, is one more big stick with two ends. Jews, with their conscript soldiers (like Benzion), “more scholars than warriors,” are forced to be what they do not wish to be, what goes against their very nature as Jews: brutal oppressors. Fate forces them to choose violence, sometimes even violence against their own kind.

Bezmozgis astutely pinpoints the problem without ever mentioning Palestinians. “And it was all to do with land. A measure of earth under your feet that you could call your own. Was there a more primitive concept? But nobody lives in the ether. Man is a physical being who requires physical space. And his nature is a prejudicial nature of alike and unalike. That was the history of the world. How much earth can you claim with another’s consent? How long can you hold it if you haven’t consent? And is it possible to foster consent where none exists? Kotler didn’t know the answers to the first two questions, but the essential question was the last, and the answer to that was not favorable.”

You take land away from a whole people, the Palestinians, you drive them off their land in the name of a grand ideal. Then you are faced with the consequences. You sit on the land you have taken, trying to find a way to pacify those from whom you have taken it. They will not be pacified. Probably never. So sits Israel, not in Resplendent Zion, but in The Land of the Gray, on the stick with two ends.

What about America? Well, as most Americans know, we are the exceptional country, the place where dreams come true and no one is beaten by the stick with two ends. Except that, if we step back and take a good long look at our country, we will see that stick flailing away here as well. Near the end of the book Bezmozgis gently inserts a bit of criticism of the American way. On the plane out of Crimea back to Israel all varieties of Jews are passengers, including American Jews, “carefree, heedless, and a little dim, cushioned from history and entrusted with too much.” “A little dim. Cushioned from history. Entrusted with too much.” This is a common European view of Americans; I’ve heard Russians express it many many times. We naïve Americans, who want to see the world in black and white terms, have not yet learned the sad sad tale of the Land of the Gray. And yet, then again, aren’t we naïve Americans lucky? To have done without the thousand years of blood and brutality that is Russian history—and Yugoslavian history, and the history of peoples all over the world, who have not made one iota of progress despite the rivers of blood in which they, and all their ancestors, have been forced to swim. Aren’t we lucky?

The book is about ambiguity, but Bezmozgis writes in a style of straight literary realism. No Nabokovian tricks here, but he does have a good feel for structuring a novel; his strong point is characterization. He shows us real people, in the flesh.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book in which this Land of the Gray (both in personal terms and in terms of international politics) is better presented. David Bezmozgis is a real writer, a grasper and presenter of the ambiguities with which we all wrestle. His name is brainless (from the Russian bez, without, and mozg, brain), but having written this book full of insights into human nature, he deserves a better name. Maybe we should re-christen him “David Smozgami,” the man with brains.

U.R. Bowie, author of The Tale of the Bastard Feverfew, 2015

excerpt:

Sanctuary

ONE
A thousand kilometers away, while the next great drama of his life was unfolding and God was banging His gavel to shake the Judaean hills, Baruch Kotler sat in the lobby of a Yalta hotel and watched his young mistress berate the hotel clerk—a pretty blond girl, who endured the assault with a stiff, mulish expression. A particularly Russian sort of expression, Kotler thought. The morose, disdainful expression with which the Russians had greeted their various invaders. An expression that denoted an irrational, mortal refusal to capitulate—the pride and bane of the Russian people. That Leora persisted in arguing with the girl proved that she was the product of another culture. In Israel, notoriously obstinate country, argument could be sport, sometimes engaged in for its own sake, sometimes to accomplish something. But this Levantine penchant for argument was of no use in a Crimean hotel at high season. Much had changed, Kotler observed—the very existence of this modern hotel and a few others like it; the vacationers in their Western fashions and their brash, contemptuous, cheerful, money-induced postures; all the visible appurtenances of progress and prosperity—but at the root, where it mattered, there was no change. One had only to look at the Russian girl’s face. A people’s mentality, this hard nut, mysterious and primitive, resisted change. Yet to espouse such a view was now considered provocative, and it was precisely this sort of provocative thinking that had landed him in his predicament, Kotler thought gravely—but not without a twist of ironic satisfaction.

Leora spun away from the registration desk and strode over to Kotler. He regarded her as she approached, a strong-minded Jewish girl, dark curls flying, black eyes fierce with indignation, her solid, compact figure radiating rebuke. Perhaps someone could think, considering them, that here was a dutiful daughter vacationing with her father. But wasn’t that yet another of the changes, the increased number of daughters and fathers who seemed to be vacationing together?

—The cow says they have no record of our reservation, Leora announced. An outright lie. I was tempted to tell her whom she was dealing with.

—I’m sure it would have made a profound impression.

—I wouldn’t be so dismissive of your importance.

—Well, there’s something I’ve seldom been accused of, Kotler said.

—I don’t find this nearly as amusing as you do.

—All right, Leora, what do you propose we do? Write an open letter, stage a hunger strike?

Each trailing a suitcase, they stepped from the coolness of the marble lobby into the bright glare of the esplanade

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