The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis


Shortlisted for the Canadian Giller Prize, The Betrayers has a wonderfully simple plotline that the author uses to great advantage. Baruch Kotler, a well-known government official in Israel has run away with his young mistress Leora Rosenberg as their affair was made public when he refused to be blackmailed into silence about his disagreement with a government policy. Baruch and Leora, both Russian emigres to Israel, went to Yalta to escape the publicity. By chance they made arrangements to rent a room in a house for a week with a Russian woman who said her husband was Jewish. When Kotler saw her husband at a distance, he realized he was Vladimir Tankilevich, the man who had betrayed him to the KGB 40 years before, resulting in his imprisonment in a gulag for 13 years. His was the key betrayal, but there are others, as the title implies: Kotler of his wife and children, Rosenberg of her friend, Kotler's daughter.

Tankilevich is introduced as a broken man in bad health with scarcely enough money to live on. He must ride an uncomfortable bus a long distance each week to attend services so he can receive a stipend from the Jewish organization. His request that this requirement end because of his health is refused. There were extenuating circumstances for Tankilevich's betrayal (he did it to keep the Soviets from killing his brother). He complains of his miserable life and notes that Kotler's 13 years in the gulag resulted him his adulation in Israel, his wealth, and his having a young beautiful mistress. Nice try.

The author fleshes out each of the figures in this drama. Kotler is an introspective man, of highly moral character, recognizing the slightly ridiculous position he is in by going off with this young woman. His fearlessness and occasionally humorous commentary and reactions are especially pleasing. Svetlana, the wife of the betrayer, has conversations with both Leora and Baruch that are honest and introspective. Miriam, Baruch's wife, weighs in through email, coming through as a strong intelligent woman. 

I found this to be an especially satisfying book, able explore complicated political concepts without being didactic. The complications of the plotline unfold slowly and naturally. It worked well as an audiobook.

David Bezmozgis, The Betrayers, Little, Brown and Company, 2014, 240 pages (I listened to the audiobook).

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