Book review – The Betrayers

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For some reason I have liked The English Bookstore and Cafe in Belgium on Facebook,  it looks like a gorgeous shop and while I’ve never been to Belgium,  I’d love to visit this store. They have started a book club and The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis was their first selection, I decided to take them up on it.  It was an interesting challenge,  Bezmozgis can wrote beautiful sentences but also I’m afraid I never quite understood this book. I fear that’s probably more a deficiency of my own than Mr Bezmozgis’.
The blurb describes an encounter in a Jerusalem Park between a politician and a Mossad agent on the eve of a controversial vote,  an unsuccessful blackmail attempt and the politician’s flight from the furore he’s unleashed. The testimonials printed on the cover describe The Betrayers as ‘gripping from the outset’, ‘taut, fierce, compulsive’, ‘a moral thriller’.
Sounds promising doesn’t it? In reality the story covers a little over 24 hours in real time, starting with Kotler, the ageing Jewish politician and his much younger mistress arriving in a small seaside town in Ukraine. Kotler had voted against his government (the reason for the blackmail), photos of his infidelity had made it to the press and they had escaped the fallout in Jerusalem.
Here is where my problems started,  I don’t know anywhere near enough about the history of Russian and Ukrainian Jews,  Zionists,  refuseniks (I had to Google that one) and the like,  I had to guess what a hesed might be and so on. The vote Kotler had controversially voted no to was withdrawing from settlement. I interpreted this as the Israelis had claimed some land at some time in the past,  encouraged families to settle and live there and now were withdrawing their support,  the military were withdrawing and the families were either being forcibly removed or perhaps just left to the mercy of the palestinians,  I’m not quite sure. This was my problem all throughout the novel,  I had to assume a lot.
Complicating things further (for my apparently poorly educated mind) was Kotler’s back story that influenced all decisions in the story. As a young man he was an average activist but was betrayed by an acquaintance, subjected to a farcical treason trial and spent 13 years in a gulag. Upon his release he became a symbol for the Zionists and almost by default became a politician and hero of the people.
In a strange twist of fate as he and his mistress retreat to the Crimea to find anonymity,  they end up renting a room from the man who betrayed him decades earlier. Tankilevich has had a poor existence, a Zionist himself he was blackmailed by the KGB into betraying Kotler and consequently became the villain of the Jewish people. He is elderly now and held to ransom by poverty and the threat of his shame exposing him, unable to return to the homeland he is stranded in a sad town and is thoroughly miserable.
The ingrained and complete bigotry against the Jews in these countries is something that is very very far from my personal experience and understanding. It’s something I’ve never witnessed and always believed was resigned to the annals. So it’s hard to understand a novel that has this as it’s very fabric,  that assumes you are aware of the issues,  the daily prejudice and battle these men face. So I found much of the politics of this novel hard to follow, nigh on impossible in fact.
But the strength of the novel I found was when Bezmozgis concentrated on the relationships. On the first page the mistress is attempting to argue with an implacable Russian check-in clerk about a missing reservation. He observes ‘That Leora persisted in arguing with the girl proved that she was the product of another culture. In Israel, notoriously obstinate country, argument could be sport, sometimes engaged for its own sake, sometimes to accomplish something.’
In a strange coincidence in our real world, BMan had that day worked with an Israeli guy and was describing an argument he had had with him. I read this quote and the penny dropped, he remembered other Israelis he had worked with in the past and recognised the trait. The next day when he went to work they engaged in a number of arguments, neither were offended and both had a great day.
Bezmozgis does write really very well when describing the various relationships so I can assume he writes as well about the politics and the moral dilemmas, I just struggled to follow and understand these portions. Not a great deal happens in the narrative,  it is more about the people their hopes and dreams when they were young, what they become as those people age, what can be forgiven, how do you determine if someone has paid their dues.
There were many times I almost gave up on this novel, but then I’d read a couple of pages I really enjoyed.
I’m afraid I wouldn’t recommend The Betrayers to other readers, unless this is a subject you have a particular interest in. It is beautifully written but unfortunately I had to drag myself through it to finish.

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