This past February, award-winning Canadian author David Bezmozgis found himself in a predicament. His new novel, “The Betrayers,” was to be published in the summer — which he was, of course, pleased about. But there was a problem.
“The Betrayers” is the fictional story of a famous Soviet refusenik-turned Israeli cabinet minister named Baruch Kotler who flees Jerusalem to the Crimean resort town of Yalta with his young mistress in the wake of a political and personal scandal.
Kotler decides to escape to Yalta, a place he associates with happy memories of childhood vacations, after refusing to be blackmailed into reversing his public condemnation of the Israeli prime minister’s plan to unilaterally withdraw from a West Bank settlement. As fate would have it, he ends up coming face to face in Yalta with the man who denounced him as a spy to the Soviet authorities decades earlier.
The events of the precisely-written, compact 240-page novel were originally meant to take place in August 2014, contemporaneous with the book’s publication. What Bezmozgis had no way of foreseeing was Russia’s annexation of Crimea following the Ukrainian Revolution.
“Nobody in their right mind would vacation in Yalta in the summer of 2014,” Bezmozgis says in a phone interview with The Times of Israel from Toronto.
Israel also figures prominently in “The Betrayers,” but this summer’s conflict with Gaza did not catch Bezmozgis off-guard.
“If you choose to write about Israel, it’s fair to expect something to happen over the several years of writing a book, but Russia’s takeover of Crimea was a real shock,” he says.
Once the author recovered from being blindsided by current events, he dialed back the novel’s setting by a year to August 2013.
Timing may be everything, but the core questions “The Betrayers” raises about personal morality and national and ethnic loyalty are timeless. By delving in to the original motivations and eventual life trajectories of protagonist Kotler (obviously modeled on Natan Sharansky) and his ostensible nemesis, Chaim Tankilevich, Bezmozgis grapples with the rewards and costs of sticking (or not) by one’s principles.
What is it like for a person, such as Tankilevich, to have denounced a friend to the government of a country that no longer exists? And what does it do to a person, such as Kotler, when an absolute sense of morality and national loyalty make it impossible to put one’s family’s needs before those of Israel and the Jewish people?
“This was the point in my life when I was ready to write a book like this,” says Bezmozgis, whose 2011 novel, “The Free World,” and 2004 debut short story collection, “Natasha: And Other Stories” (which Bezmozgis, also a filmmaker, is currently turning in to a feature movie) have been highly acclaimed.
‘Israel matters to me a great deal, especially as a Jew from the FSU’
“I’m 41 now, and for the last while I have been thinking a lot about the things that matter the most. What does it mean to conduct oneself in a moral, upright way? How can one be a good person and set an example for one’s children?” he asks.
While Bezmozgis considers “The Betrayers” a departure — unlike his other books, it does not relate directly to any of his own life experiences as a young, Jewish, Russian-speaking Latvian immigrant to Canada — it still deals with subjects of immediate personal importance.
“Israel matters to me a great deal, especially as a Jew from the FSU. Unlike American Jews, I am the first generation of my family to live through a period of not being discriminated against because I am a Jew,” he says.
Bezmozgis is not willing to discuss anything specific about his political stance vis-à-vis Israel, but he does believe that his attitude toward the country comes through in the book.
“I have spent three to four years thinking intensely about Israel, and that has allowed me to formulate certain things I wouldn’t have otherwise,” he says.
“I’ve been thinking about what it means to be part of a nation state, to have a national character, and to be connected to the land — things that in enlightened company seem outdated.”
The author’s extensive research process for writing “The Betrayers” included a trip to Israel, as well as another to Crimea. Although he knew that Crimea was very Russian, he went there to experience it first-hand in the summer of 2011. There, he spoke with ordinary Crimeans and learned of the day-to-day hardships of living in Ukraine.
He visited several Jewish communities and their JDC-Hesed welfare organizations. (In the novel, the ill and aging Tankilevich, abiding by the Hesed’s terms for supporting him despite his having betrayed a fellow Jew, schleps for hours by bus and on foot to Simferopol once a week to help make a Shabbat minyan.)
“I saw how little the Jews are getting by on, but their circumstances are better than those of the others,” Bezmozgis says.
Bezmozgis, who is a fluent Russian speaker, was impressed by the energy displayed by the members of the dwindling Crimean Jewish community, despite the fact that “the future for them does not look good.”
In the early fall of 2012, the author visited Israel and spoke with a wide range of locals, including politicians and activists. Among those he met with were former Soviet refuseniks (though deliberately not Sharansky or anyone in his family). He found them to be far less disenchanted with contemporary Israel than the others he interviewed.
“When I asked them how they feel about Israel after all these years, they all said they were still staunchly Zionist,” he says.
What he discovered in those conversations is clearly reflected in “The Betrayers” through Kotler and his steadfast, religiously observant wife, Miriam, and their soldier son Benzion and teenage daughter Dafna.
‘There is something to be said for having a sense of identifying with something greater than yourself’
It’s clear where Kotler stands in terms of Jewish settlement of the entire Land of Israel. “Holding the territory had become increasingly painful, but as Kotler knew, one had to have tolerance for pain. Because there is no life without pain. To deny this was only to invite more pain,” Bezmozgis writes from his protagonist’s point of view.
“…If you were not willing to protect your people, you should not have encouraged them to live in that place, and if you were not going to encourage them to live in that place, you should never have held the territory,” Kotler critiques the government as it prepares to evacuate the settlement.
It took a while for Bezmozgis to get in to the head of the uncompromisingly virtuous Kotler.
“Rather than being prey to forces of history and ideology, he instead shaped them,” he says of Kotler. “Until I felt I understood his world view, I wasn’t ready to write this novel.”
The author is unwilling to discuss how closely his politics resemble Kotler’s. Nonetheless, there are elements of Kotler’s character that Bezmozgis evidently admires.
“There is something to be said for having a sense of identifying with something greater than yourself,” he says.