David Bezmozgis’ new novel, The Betrayers, follows the late-life travails of Baruch Kotler, a celebrated Soviet-Jewish-dissident-turned-Israeli-politician, who bears some resemblance to the real-life refusenik Natan Sharanksy. Like Sharansky, the fictional Kotler spent many years in jail before emigrating to Israel—where he was received as a hero—but unlike Sharansky, he finds himself embroiled in scandal when his extra-marital affair with a much younger woman is revealed.
Kotler flees the furore in the Holy Land for Crimea (because irony), where he encounters Vladimir Tankilevich, the man who once betrayed him. What follows is a delicious, compelling, literary psychodrama—and a fascinating exploration of Zionism, the right-wing trajectory of Israeli politics, and the legacy of Soviet Jewry. Writing in The New York Times, Boris Fishman (also interviewed by Jewcy) raved thusly about The Betrayers: “A novel of ideas and an engrossing story? It’s the umami experience: salty and sweet, yin and yang, the rocket scientist who is also a looker.” Tablet’s Adam Kirsch described it as “the rare book that makes being Jewish feel not just like a fate or a burden, but a great opportunity.” Michael Orbach talked with Bezmozgis about these big ideas—and more—earlier this month.
What was the genesis of the book?
I’d written an obituary in 2004 for The New York Times Magazine about a Jewish dissident in Moscow, Alexander Lerner. In researching it, I came across this detail that Lerner stood accused, along with Natan Sharansky, by a fellow Jew, a guy named Sanya Lipavsky, which I’d never heard before. I became fascinated by this idea that this one Jew had denounced his ostensibly Zionist brothers for a regime that then ceased to exist. I wondered what happened to this man when the Soviet Union fell apart; what his life would have been like. That was the beginning of it, but it led to a larger question that fascinated me about morality: why are some people—like Sharansky—incredibly principled and willing to sacrifice anything for their principles and what is it that separates them from most other people? The moral question is the heart of the book. I wondered what would happen if these two men ever encountered each other and if they did so in the present day, with the background of what was happening to the former Soviet Union and the background of what Israel had become and was changing into. That was what inspired the book.
It is a rather lovely book and it does ask that question. Do you think that question has a sort of predestinated answer?
This is part of the project of the book: one is to ask the question and then to dramatize it and the other is to pose an answer, which the book does. I don’t think we should reveal the answer during an interview; I feel it takes some of the excitement out of the reading away. But it does pose the question of what separates the highly virtuous people and most other people and how would we ever know? That was what was interesting about these two characters, Kotler and Tankilevich, because of the Soviet system a lot of the people were actually forced to declare and expose themselves morally and constitutionally: what kind of person are you and will you denounce your brother? Will you resist and, of course, what price would you pay for your resistance?
Was there a good deal of research involved in writing this book?
Yes. The Betrayers derived almost nothing from my own experience so there was a research on a number of levels. First of all, to understand people like Kotler, the refuseniks and Zionist dissidents. I read memoirs they published; I visited Israel, in part, to meet some of these people, see what their lives were like in Israel and how they felt all these years later about the country. This was in 2012, before the Gaza War that proceeded this most recent war. In 2011, I was in Crimea and traveled around to find where to set the story. I hadn’t thought it would be Yalta, but Yalta was the only place I could do it.
For the very simple reason that I needed large, fancy hotels and outside of Yalta, no place on the Crimean coast had these things.
What was the difference in your writing process between writing something loosely based around your own life (like Natasha) and something like this?
I think by the time I start writing it doesn’t make much of a difference. By the time you start writing it’s just the complication, the challenge, of writing good sentences. Whether I’m writing about myself or I’m writing about someone like Kotler, it really didn’t make much of a difference. It was leading up to the process of starting—trying to understand the subject—that was the big change.
The obvious parallel to Kotler is Natan Sharansky, but I noticed there’s a section where Kotler reminisces about being put on trial in Israel by another refusenik. For some reason, this reminded me a bit of Rudolph Kastner and his experiences post-WW2. Was this based on him?
No, in fact it was this other little detail that I discovered when I was in Israel talking to refuseniks. There was an actual trial against Sharansky that I was fascinated by and it finds its way into the book. In Israel Sharansky stood accused of being a fraud, the opposite of what everyone believed him to be, not a victim but one of the villains. That was a fascinating detail. Not much directly from Sharansky’s life enters into the novel. It is significantly fictionalized, but that detail was striking.
What was it like meeting the refuseniks in Israel? I remember speaking to Gal Beckerman, the author of When They Come For Us We’ll Be Gone, and he made this joke in passing that a lot of refusniks complain jokingly, but also not, that Israel is just like the Soviet Union.
That wasn’t my experience at all. In fact, that was one of the things I was curious about: how did these people, who sacrificed so much to come to Israel, feel about Israel? When they came to Israel a lot of them struggled. The people I spoke to, across the board, remained very committed Zionists and loved Israel. They were on the political right and not on the political left which is true of most former Soviet Jews.
Sharansky is on the right of the Israel political spectrum and that comes across in Kotler’s character as well.
There are people far more on the right. There are moments when [Sharansky] articulates democratic positions that other people don’t. At the time of the Arab Spring he was one of the few Israeli officials that believed this sort of thing should be supported and not immediately suspected. As the case turned out we now know what happened to the Arab Spring. But he wasn’t one of the cynics.
Tangential question: Is there a more right-wing trajectory in all Israeli politics right now?
I think Israeli politics have swung to the right. The Likud has been in power for a decade or some version of the Likud, that’s a fact. Part of what prompted me to include Israel as a part of the book has to do with how that country has changed. How it’s changed has been a function of absorbing more than a million Soviet Jews. I’ve written these three books and this last one was intended to be completely contemporary and to ask the question: what is going to be the legacy of the Soviet Jews? Their real legacy isn’t in North America; their real legacy is in Israel. They’ve changed that country. And if people are interested in why that country has swung to the right, part of the answer has to do with these Russian Jews. You have to understand the mentality and the context of what formed them politically and ideologically: what the Soviet Union was like and what it did to Jews and what it means to all these Jews, speaking broadly, to no longer be the oppressed, but to actually wield power.
They’ve also contributed a lot to the culture and economy in Israel in the best possible way, but politically they’re part of the reason why that country swung to the right. The book continues on with Kotler’s son and the difference between Kotler—who most people on the left would consider a politically conservative guy—and his son. That’s the other part of the family story, which is the rise of the Zionist Orthodox and how that has changed the country.
I’ve noticed that in your story collection Natasha and this book, bad people seem to go to minyan [services]. I think any fictional character who attends minyan in your book is bound to be unpleasant or bound to meet someone quite unpleasant.
Go to any minyan in your own world and I’m sure that one of those people aren’t as pure as driven snow either. That uncle who has some real estate holdings and maybe a scrapyard. He’s the one who sponsored the Kiddush, standing there by the herring.
You’ve spoken many times about the great Jewish writer Leonard Michaels. How were you influenced by him?
Part of the experience in encountering a writer you connect with is also recognizing something of yourself, that feeling of identification: this person has written the book that you were meant to write. There was an instant of admiration and envy when I encountered Lenny’s stories. His approach to his childhood and upbringing seemed in line with mine. The way he looked at urban Jewish life wasn’t purely intellectual, he had these athletes and hustlers. It wasn’t bookish nebbish-ey representation of Jews, and growing up in a community surrounded by Soviet Jews. All the men of my grandfather’s generation served at the front; my father was in sports and many of his friends were athletes. That was the world that made sense to me: where Jews could be both physical and cerebral.
And the beauty of his prose: how economical it was and yet not at the expense of just being evocative and poetic. I still haven’t encountered very many writers that move me the way that Leonard Michaels moved me. I go back and re-read him all the time.
I don’t think anything can match his story ‘Murderers’. That’s a perfect story.
It’s a perfect story. And you can read it, and re-read it and find something new. There’s not a wasted image and everything comes together. There’s humor in it; there’s a real understanding of the darkness that attends being mortal and there’s just great artistic beauty. “We sat on the roof like angels, shot through with light, derealized in brilliance.” My God, somebody else write a better line than that.
(Image: author’s website)