blogged about here. Both books were shortlisted for this year’s Giller, but a person would be hard-pressed to find two contemporary novels that were more different. Whereas O’Neill is a master of whimsy, of flakiness and of small, quotidian details, Bezmozgis’ book navigates the grimly serious terrain of geopolitics and its influence on individuals trying to do the right thing. Both novels are brilliant in their own ways, and I actually valued the jarring impact of immediately going from one to the other.
The Betrayers tells the story of Baruch Kotler, a former Soviet dissident turned Israeli politician. In a flight of conscience, Kotler turns on his own political party and speaks out against the dismantling of an Israeli settlement in Palestinian territory. As revenge, his former allies expose an affair Kotler is having with a much younger woman named Leora. The two lovers flee together to Crimea, where Kotler encounters a man he knew decades ago named Tankilevich, who was responsible for exposing Kotler as a Soviet dissident in Russia in the 1970s and getting him sent to the Gulag for 13 years. Meanwhile, back home, Kotler’s son Benzion, who is serving with the Israeli army, is about to go against orders in the tearing down of the Israeli settlement. He reaches out to his father for wisdom, but Kotler’s own predicament interferes with him giving his son good counsel.
The themes here are, obviously enough, issues of loyalty versus betrayal, and each character grapples with the double side of this coin. Some readers may find this thematic thread a bit too obvious, but Bezmozgis counteracts a lot of that by working hard to build the emotional tension between his characters. As a writer, he is very good at using a wide lens to show how larger forces and personal history can rewrite a character’s morality. The compelling interactions between Kotler and Tankilevich transcend the basic themes in the novel and leave us shaken by the damage both men have done to each other.
The Betrayers, while dismal in its set up, is strangely uplifting in its conclusion. Bezmozgis leaves us with a sense that hope is possible, that loyalty can withstand betrayal, and that good choices can follow bad ones and still do good.