Archive for the ‘Bezmozgis, David (2)’ Category

The Betrayers, by David Bezmozgis

October 19, 2014

Purchased at

Purchased at

The notion of betrayal and how an act of betrayal effects everyone involved (not just the betrayer and the betrayed, but all those close to both) is ever-present in David Bezmozgis’ new novel.

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.

11shadow logoIn 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.


The Free World, by David Bezmozgis

April 21, 2011

Purchased at

Author David Bezmozgis introduces us to the eight members of the Krasnansky family on the platform of Vienna’s Western Terminal. It is the summer of 1978 and they are part of the diaspora of Russian Jews who are fleeing (or being evicted) from the Soviet Union. Samuil, the partriarch, has already had his WWII medals seized (“they are the property of the state”) as part of a humiliating experience (including body cavity searches) at the Soviet border. The family has spent their first few days in the Free World wandering in awe around Vienna and are now headed to Rome, another transit point where they will spend months, perhaps even years, before getting documentation to leave again for a final, not-yet-chosen destination — Chicago is their first choice because of a relative already living there, but Canada and Australia are also possibilites.

In the confusion on the platform, Samuil and his wife, Emma, tend to the two grandchildren while the sons, Karl and Alec, and their wives, Rosa and Polina, load luggage — a life’s remaining possessions and the meal ticket to the future, actually — into the train compartment. Alec is idly attracted to a couple of young American girls also waiting on the platform (an early indication of his overwhelming weakness) but his brother calls him to order:

Alec bent into the remaining pile of suitcases and duffel bags on the platform. Each seemed heavier than the last. For six adults they had twenty articles of luggage crammed with goods destined for the bazaars of Rome: linens, toys, samovars, ballet shoes, nesting dolls, leather Latvian handicrafts, nylon stockings, lacquer boxes, pocket-knives, camera equipment, picture books, and opera glasses. One particularly heavy suitcase held Alec’s big commercial investment, dozens of symphonic records.

It used to be called the New World, but in Cold War times it is the Free World. Life in Riga holds no possibilities so, at the urging of the sons, mainly Karl, a new life will be sought. Israel is one, easier option (flights leave from Vienna, no documentation or pre-approval required), but the family is not religious and yields to Karl’s urging of settling in surroundings more conducive to his (questionable) entrepreneurial nature.

Bezmozgis entwines three time threads in his narrative — memories (both bad and good) of a Latvian and Soviet past, getting by for the present for who knows how long in Rome, and looking forward (perhaps) to an uncertain future wherever they may end up (if you are going to Canada, don’t say you want to go to Toronto, they are helpfully advised by an emigrant support worker). He frames these stories principally from the very different views of past, present and future held by Samuil and Alec.

Samuil is a reluctant and very grumpy emigrant who still remembers with pride the early days of post-Tsarist Russia and fighting the Nazis. After the war, he had a good managerial career, including a chauffeur-driven limo, but recently has been denounced. His Party membership would likely be revoked, sending him jobless into Riga’s streets, so accompanying his sons seems the only choice. A few weeks after arriving in Rome, returning to the decrepit family cottage after talking with a friend about the Party Stories (denouncing the horrors of the Soviet state) that Western authorities expect from those in the diaspora, Samuil has his own conflicting set of memories:

It disturbed Samuil to think of the dozens, the hundreds if not thousands of Party Stories being written by traitors and prevaricators to please the Americans. Samuil envisioned the dossier the American diplomats were compiling, full of false testimonies. In the end, it would lead to a gross distortion of the historical record. Samuil recalled life before the Communists and life after the Communists. He remembered the excesses of the bourgeoisie and the abject existence of the proletariat. He remembered hunger, cold, filth, penury and, worst of all, the smothered hopes of gifted, honest proletarian youth. No one who had not experienced these things could legitimately judge the Communist state. Of course, he acknowledged that, at times, mistakes had been made, that opportunistic elements had wormed their way into positions of power, but the system could not be judged on the basis of rogues and impostors. Rogues and impostors could not be allowed to qualify the essential Communist picture. In order to see this picture, a person would need to take up residence inside Samuil’s head, where the real events of proletarian struggle and triumph were housed like a breathing archive.

If Samuil’s memories have qualifications, Alec’s represent a different kind of “smothered hope”. His introspection occurs as he is being shown around the HIAS offices that support the newly-arrived and waiting emigrants. His English has qualified him for a job and the manager is trying to figure out just what it should be. Alec’s thoughts are sparked by a conversation initiated by his boss after the two look in on the transportation department (they supervise the loading of furniture and goods once a family has a destination to go to — you don’t want furniture arriving in Melbourne when the family is landing in New York):

— You do not seem to be an imposing man, Matilda said.

— Imposing? Alec asked, not understanding.

— A man to give orders to other men, Matilda said. No, they would eat you alive on the docks.

As neither the docks nor the musty office held any appeal for him, Alec saw no reason to contest Matilda’s perception of him. Besides, she was essentially right. His father was imposing and enjoyed issuing decrees and orders. Karl had this capacity as well, although he didn’t derive the kind of pleasure from it that their father did. Whereas the only thing Alec detested more than being ordered around was having to order someone else around. Basically, he was of the opinion that the world would be a far more interesting and hospitable place if everyone — genius and idiot alike — was allowed to bumble along as he pleased. “More freedom to bumble” neatly described his motive for leaving the Soviet Union.

Alec has actually “bumbled” his way into his current circumstances, in the form of his marriage to Polina. They worked together at a Riga factory, had an affair and the married Polina got pregnant. The story of how these two happened to marry and emigrate is heart-breaking in its own right. Bezmozgis mades the New Yorker’s “20 under 40” list last summer and if you happen to be a subscriber to the magazine, an excerpt from the novel (actually pulled from several parts of the novel) recounts much of this thread — link is here, but available only to subscribers, alas.

The supporting cast in this exceptional novel is fully as good as the central characters. Karl, the shady entrepreneur, falls in with a gang of even more amoral characters (all forced diasporas involve getting rid of as many criminal types as possible) who are studies in the universality of crime in both Communist and capitalist systems. Polina conducts a correspondence with her younger sister who will face her own dislocation decision. Alec and Polina’s landlord, Lyova, would be worth a book himself — he fled the Soviet Union for Israel and lived there for five years before leaving again (his wife, child and parents are still there) with the hope of getting a U.S. visa. He found there wasn’t much difference between pointing a tank gun at students in the streets of Prague (which he did) and another tank gun at Palestinians in Israel (which he also did).

Throughout all of this, Bezmozgis also paints a thorough portrait of Rome (including the coastal towns of Ostia and Ladispoli where most of the Jews are housed while they await their papers) as it is experienced by the displaced poor. It is only a transit point, but people still have to make money to survive and they still have a common culture and shared experience — anyone who has walked by the street bazaars and tawdry goods spread on blankets in any large Western metropolis will recognize his descriptions.

The emptiness of displacement, albeit with some hope for a future. The conflicting tensions inside a family, the different memories each one carries of what was and the different aspirations each has for the future. The formation of a temporary community of forlorn souls as they wait to move on, something that is present in every diaspora.

Bezmozgis captures all of that in The Free World, certainly the best new novel that I have read to date this year. He was born in Riga in 1973 and one of the novel’s dedications is in memory of Mendel Bezmozgis (1935-2006), so one can assume there is some personal experience present in this story. His first published book, Natasha and Other Stories (2004), was a collection of seven stories featuring a Russian immigrant family in Toronto — it’s hard not to think that the family (the Bermans in that book) doesn’t represent the Krasnansky’s, post-Rome.

I thought Natasha was excellent — this novel is even better. David Bezmozgis is a voice that we are going to hear much from in the future (some reviewers have even called him the new Philip Roth, which might be just a tad premature), but that is no reason not to read him now. I not only expect to see The Free World Giller-listed (as Natasha was), I fully expect it to be on the list when the Booker dozen is revealed in July.

A well-chosen epigraph often supplies an appropriate stage for a book, so I’ll end this review by quoting The Free World‘s:

Now the Lord said unto Abram: “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee.” — Genesis 12:1

(Note to Calgary visitors here: David Bezmozgis will be in Calgary May 14 for an event co-sponsored by the Writers’ Trust of Canada and Pages Books on Kensington — details are available by phoning Pages at 403-283-6655.)

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