Forever homeless, forever searching for the motherland
David Bezmozgis ‘The Betrayers’ is a disquieting, uncomfortable read – and an excellent one, in large part because of the discomfort of its shifting, ambiguous moral territory, and the avoidance of easy, comforting solutions. Life is messy, angels and demons as distinct entities are fairy tale creations, and the best and the worst of us alike are constantly in shift along a continuum of moral high and low ground
Baruch Kotler, one of the two central characters in this book, is a Russian Jew, now living in Israel. Kotler became a hero. He was a dissident in Russia, betrayed by a colleague, a fellow Jew, and spent thirteen years in the gulags, saved from execution (his initial sentence) because of an international outcry. When at the end of his sentence he and his wife were allowed to emigrate to Israel, they were greeted as heroes. Years on, Kotler is now a member of the Knesset, who have narrowly voted to withdraw from the settlements. Kotler is implacably opposed to this, and there have been attempts to twist his arm and get him to toe the line. Something he refuses to do – even when one of the ‘twists’ is to publicly expose the fact that he is having an affair with Leora, a co-worker, daughter of friends, a similar age to Kotler’s own daughter, Dafna – and coincidentally a close friend of Dafna’s
The novel opens with Kotler and his lover on the run as the ‘scandal’ breaks in the Israeli media. They have come to hole up in Yalta, back to Kotler’s roots, till the media furore dies down. Kotler was last here forty years ago.
By happenstance, a mix-up with hotel reservations results in Kotler and Leora having to seek ‘hospitality’ with one of the locals who turn up at stations to offer travellers bed and breakfast, in return for much-needed currency. And it just so happens that Svetlana, the local woman Kotler and Leora choose to lodge with, is married to Tankilevich, the comrade who was a secret KGB agent, and betrayed him. Tankilevich, now seventy, and keen to emigrate himself, will have his own complex story to tell
This is, in many ways, a ‘talking heads’ novel. Not a lot happens externally, the drive of the book is mostly set in the cauldrons of the past, how they still burn and fire the present, and how the central characters Kotler, Leora, Svetlana, Tankilevich, and the added history and present complexities of Kotler’s family – wife, Miriam, daughter Dafna, son, Benzion, a soldier in the Israeli army detailed to clear the settlements, and determined to refuse – will play out with each other.
Land! The land!……What dreams (the land) had nurtured and what distortions now obtained. 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 like 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?
Who betrayed whom, who is betraying whom, who will be betrayed? Kotler himself is a wry man, a man with humour, so his observations prevent the book from being unremittingly bleak. Something about the complex subject matter of betrayal, of examination of loyalty – to whom, and to what are we loyal, reminded me of Coetzee.
One of the strengths of the book is that while politics – how it influences the individual, and what the influence of many individuals on politics might be – is central to the book, Bezmozgis is not indulging in polemics – we hear the different stories of individuals, their justifications and viewpoints.
Bezmozgis himself was born in Latvia, though brought up in Toronto from the age of 7, after his parents emigrated. I would guess there lies within him, and within family dynamics, a greater complexity about where ‘home’ is, than for most of us who are born and live out our lives in one country. That sense of being both ‘home’ and ‘not home’ which seems to be quite common in people with this experience – a kind of forever longing for the other ‘home’ in whichever place you are – permeates this fine book