Author explores morality, betrayal in Crimea-set story

More on “The Betrayers”:

David Bezmozgis started writing “The Betrayers” four years ago, and in those days, “When anybody asked me what I was writing about, I’d have to go into this long spiel about Crimea and what it was.”

The novel’s publication this week, following months of dramatic news footage from Crimea and Ukraine splashed across television and computer screens, has at least made for briefer introductions on book tours.

Bezmozgis will appear in conversation with Zoetrope All-Story editor Michael Ray Sept. 30 at the JCCSF to open One Bay One Book, a program of Jewish LearningWorks and the Jewish Community Library, which has selected “The Betrayers” as its featured title.

David Bezmozgis

Setting his book in Crimea was a coincidence and “not because I expected [the conflict] to happen,” says the Toronto-based author and filmmaker, who spent 2011 traveling the area for research. Already familiar with the stressful social and political conditions, he had been “curious to see how people lived” in what was, historically, “the cradle of Ashkenazi Jewish life. … I wanted to see what that was like as it was coming to an end.”

“The Betrayers” is about a former Soviet dissident and refusenik, Baruch Kotler, who becomes an influential Israeli politician. Involved in a political scandal after his controversial stand on West Bank settlements leads the opposition to expose him as an adulterer, Kotler takes his young mistress to Crimea, where he has idyllic memories of vacationing as a boy, to hide out in peace.

A restorative visit is not to be. In the space of 24 hours, Kotler faces the man who delivered him into the Soviet prison system decades before. In 225 pages of spare prose that holds multiple layers of personal and collective history, the characters come together to relive their pasts. In flashbacks and conversations, we hear from Kotler’s family back in Israel: his now-estranged wife Miriam whose fire and tenacity had been instrumental in his release from the Soviet Union, his religious soldier son and his secular daughter.

Bezmozgis, named one of the New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” fiction writers for 2010, is also the author of “Natasha and Other Stories” and the 2011 novel “The Free World,” about a family of refuseniks and their journey to the West, which won Amazon Canada’s First Novel Award.

He set out knowing he’d be telling a compact story, in one setting over one day. To create the structure, Bezmozgis looked to “The Ghost Writer” by Philip Roth (“one of my favorite of his books”) and “Disgrace,” the Booker Prize–winning book by South African novelist J.M. Coetzee.

When Kotler and his mistress find themselves stranded outside a Yalta hotel that has no record of their reservations, they allow themselves to be talked into the car of a Russian woman intent on renting them a room. After they’ve settled in, a chance glimpse through a window that night shows Kotler the face of his denouncer: Vladimir Tankilevich, the ailing and embittered husband of their hostess.

We learn that Tankilevich, now calling himself Chaim, has his own demons to confront. His coerced participation in a dwindling minyan, requiring a long weekly bus ride to the town of Simferopol, has taken its toll on his health and he begs to be released from the burden. As we come to know him better, we learn some of the secrets that led him there, to a group of Jews bound together for years even though any opportunity to leave for Israel has long passed.

Bezmozgis, 41, who was born in Latvia, notes that elderly Jews in Crimea, like those in the novel, subsist on German reparation payments and contributions from the West. “The big problem is that once the people who are old enough to have suffered from the Holocaust pass away, the German money goes away, and then it really is just American philanthropic money, and things are going to be much more difficult.”

The events that have unfolded since Crimea’s annexation by Russia have been startling to Bezmozgis, despite the history. “I think, like a lot of people, I’m shocked at what has happened,” he says. “It wasn’t legal, by any international standard.” In March, 96 percent of Crimeans voted to reunite with Russia, a referendum condemned as illegal by the United Nations, Ukraine and the United States.

Bezmozgis notes the extensive “intermixing” between the minority Ukrainians and the majority ethnic Russians in Crimea over the last 200 years or so, which makes the conflict “a real civil war,” he says. “They turned against each other so rapidly.”

Although “The Betrayers” is set prior to the uprising in Ukraine and the events that followed, “the book [shows] what that society was like, and how it is that Ukrainians would have risen up against the [Viktor] Yanukovych regime and why Crimea ended up as it did.”

The main character touches on one of these reasons in the book. “Kotler’s ideology is not very politically correct,” says Bezmozgis, and his opinions aren’t necessarily his own. The character thinks “there is such a thing as a national mentality and a national character deeply ingrained, and with the right provocation, people can be set against each other.

“I keep looking for a reason to believe otherwise,” says the author. “Living in Toronto, where many, many different types of people live very harmoniously, you think, ‘It could be like this.’ But at the same time, we haven’t experienced any of the stresses that cause people to turn on one another.

“Would it be that different from what happened in Iraq, where Sunnis and Shias by most accounts [previously] managed to get along? If you put people under enough stress, everything seems to balkanize.”

Kotler is based “partly” on Natan Sharansky, says Bezmozgis, who wanted a protagonist “who is actually an influential person, somebody who has had a hand in shaping history.” He says he wrote the book to explore the legacy of Soviet Jews and the enormous impact they have had on Israeli politics and society. “They’ve changed that country, they’ve transformed it.”

Borrowing from the life of the former refusenik-turned-politician, Bezmozgis looked for small details: “His wife is quite devout and he isn’t. And there were a number of different threads I wanted to treat about what is happening in contemporary Israel, the split between secular and Orthodox and how that’s changing the country.” Kotler is “the secular Russian dissident who was very idealistic about Israel” and has to examine contradictory feelings when his stand against evacuating the settlements leads to the unraveling of his personal life.

“At the heart of the book is a moral question,” says Bezmozgis. “We all have to ask ourselves how to lead a moral life. When we talk about morality, it’s between people, and then the question of betrayal comes into it: How do we live our lives without betraying those around us?”