The “action” of the novel may be confined to a single day but the streams of events (and there are a number) which have led to this climatic 24 hours extend back more than 40 years — and every one of those streams is put in motion by an act of betrayal.
The first took place in Moscow. Boris Kotler, a Jewish refusenik, was betrayed by his roommate, another refusenik who turned out to be a KGB informer, accusing Kotler of being a CIA plant. A show trial followed and Kotler spent 13 years in an assortment of Soviet prisons and labor camps.
Throughout those 13 years, his young wife, Miriam (who had received a coveted visa and emigrated to Israel a year previously), led an international campaign that never let Kotler’s fate escape attention. When that campaign eventually produced results, his own voyage to Israel came as a hero, arriving via a private jet, accompanied by prominent state authorities eager to be seen as contributing to the success of the campaign.
In Israel, Kotler (now Baruch, not Boris) lived a life of success. At the time the novel opens, he is a minister in the cabinet (albeit representing a minor party in the coalition). His political future looks grim, however — he has both voted and spoken against the latest decision to destruct some West Bank settlements in the never-ending chess game of Israeli politics.
That was a highly-principled stand, but within hours recent acts of betrayal come back to haunt him. Baruch may be 70 but a year or so ago he betrayed Miriam (their relationship was never quite the same after his imprisonment) and took up with his assistant, Leora, who is decades younger. And in the rough and tumble world of Isaeli politics, it is only hours after his vote that a shadowy operator presents Baruch with pictures confirming the affair — if he does not change his stand, they will be forwarded to all the national newspapers.
Kotler’s act of betrayal is not to renounce his principles, although he does effectively desert them. Rather, it is to betray the entire world, career and family he has built as an Israeli hero and head to Yalta (where he remembers seaside holidays from his time as a child living in Moscow) with Leora — with no real plans beyond sharing the next few days with his young mistress. A symbol of the extent of his betrayal is that he chooses to introduce himself as Boris to the Russian woman at the bus station who is offering bed-and-breakfast accommodation.
If only for the purposes of reaching back in time, the use of his old name seemed appropriate. Not until he said it did he realize the extent to which simply identifying himself as Boris evoked a former self. A self very distinct from the man he had resolutely chosen to become. Boris. He might as well have said Borinka, the pet name his parents had used for him. His heart swelled at the ghostly sound of it in his head. And though he recognized that he was in a delicate frame of mind, still he was surprised by how vulnerable, how sentimental he had become. How easily and intensely he could be moved by his own thoughts and recollections.
Kotler’s idyllic, sexy escape lasts only a few hours. The very evening he arrives he is outside the decrepit residence where they are staying when he looks into the window — and sees that the husband of the woman who rented Baruch/Boris and Leora the room is one Tankilevich, the man who betrayed him to the KGB 40 years earlier.
As Bezmozgis develops that thread of the story, we learn that Tankilevich has been obsessed for the last 40 years with consequences of that betrayal — which from his point of view was not a betrayal but accepting the least worse choice given the pressure the KGB was applying. When they had no more use for him, he was given a new identity and a ticket to the Crimea to lose himself. He has kept up with Kotler’s fortunes over the years — while Kotler has experienced nothing but success, Tankilevich has been dealt nothing but failure. Indeed, his own current crisis is the threatened withdrawal of his only “income”, pitiful welfare payments from the local Jewish charity (based on yet again betraying his past but I’ll forego revealing those details).
It is important to note that while those events and threads provide the structure of the novel, the author is most interested in what produces betrayal and what its consequences are; he does this mainly through conversations between the characters. Kotler and Tankilevich have a number, not just about what happened 40 years ago, but what has happened since, including the last few days. Leola and Tankilevich’s wife Svetlana also have a couple — both defending their male partner while indirectly revealing the price that each has paid for his betrayals.
And there is a lengthy email letter from Miriam which pretty much goes through her experience of the whole 40 years, leading up to the pain of the last few days. By the time it takes place in the novel, the reader already knows Kotler’s version — Miriam’s letter is the viewpoint of an innocent (and aggrieved) partner in his betrayals.
Those who have read Bezmozgis’ first novel, The Free World (which impressed the Shadow Jury enough that it was our choice for the 2011 prize), will recognize that many of these elements of conflict between principle and situational morality for Jewish Russian emigres were present in that book. There is a key difference between The Betrayers and that novel however — while The Free World was more about how characters “used” (and sometimes paid for) those choices, The Betrayers is much more of a metaphysical look at the idea of betrayal, how the choice to betray is made and the cascade of consequences that follow.
I will confess to liking The Free World more than I liked this one, mainly because of the way that the author located his characters in the unfamiliar émigré world around them and the coping strategies they needed to develop to survive. This novel is a much more introspective book — while we are told what Kotler and Tankilevich were and have become, Bezmozgis is more interested in exploring the idea of betrayal than he is in fully developing the different worlds that the two lived in. While he certainly succeeds in doing that, he also succeeded in reminding me that I appreciate books that portray external context and conflict more than I do ones that focus on their internal versions.