David Bezmozgis does not waste words, so I will try to follow his example. His latest, The Betrayers (out September 23) follows a single day in the life of disgraced but sympathetic Israeli politician Baruch Kotler. Allow me to indulge my penchant for first sentences quickly, because that of The Betrayers is a beauty.
“A thousand kilometers away, while the next great drama of his life was unfolding and God was banging His gavel to shake the Judaean hills, Baruch Kolter sat in the lobby of a Yalta hotel and watched his young mistress berate the hotel clerk—a pretty blonde girl, who endured the assault with a stiff mulish expression.”
Stylistically, this is actually one of the longest sentences in the book, which is refreshingly devoid of excessive adverbs and overwrought metaphors. Bezmozgis’ writing is crisp and subtle but rich and beautiful, a welcome change from the brilliant but exhausting acrobatics of someone like Gary Shteyngart‘s prose. “Let’s try without the theatrics, Kotler said.” And Bezmozgis does.
Thematically though, this first sentence encompasses what is to come: an intersection of religion and politics, the metaphysical and the everyday, cultural heritage and personality, ancient and modern, an individual life and its relation to others.
Another refreshing change from much of the literary fiction I’ve read of late: Rather than despising all the characters, I empathize with every one of them. As soon as you forget about a character’s best interests (for example Kotler’s scorned ex-wife), Bezmozgis brings you back with a moving case for giving a shit (her letter). For me, this is the beauty of The Betrayers. During this 24-hour period, Kotler stands up to his political enemies, suffers disgrace as his affair is revealed to the public, flees to his homeland, and by a chance encounter comes face to face with the man whose betrayal sent him to the Gulag 40 years prior. From Baruch himself to his mistress to his wife to his children to his ultimate betrayer to the wife of that betrayer, you both find fault with and feel for the position of each.
Questions of fate, blame, accountability, and perspective are at the heart of this story.
“I would say that one walks hand in hand with fate,” Baruch says, “Fate pulls in one direction, you pull in the other. You follow fate; fate follows you. And it is not always possible to say who is leading whom.”
Are there aspects of our characters that are simply fated? Do people have inherent limits on their conviction or commitment to justice? To what extent can we judge other people or hold individuals accountable? On perspective and judgment, Kolter’s mistress Leora claims my favorite quote:
“Who gets to sit in judgement? Who? Everyone. And only a child or a simpleton bemoans it. To sit in judgement without all the facts? Who ever sat in judgement with all the facts? Facts were imposed by those who had the power to impose them.”
Is true empathy possible? Is it possible to truly know another person when you will never quite have all the facts? Bezmozgis explores all of these questions with insight and nuance, all in the midst of a distinctly political setting.
Without giving too much away, the emotional climax of the work for me was Miriam Kotler’s letter to her husband, which moved me to tears. (Everyone’s shocked, I know)
“I never thought there would come a time when I would not know where to find you in this world. That has been the greatest shock of all. That, if you can believe it, is what seems most painful to me. That you have vanished on us.”
And as with any good book, Bezmozgis leaves room for interpretation and that dangerous but inevitable thing called judgement. I am still struggling with questions of who did the right thing and what “the right thing” even means, and that seems to be exactly what the author intended. Certainly there are many more political themes in this book that I didn’t fully explore here, but politics is far from my area of expertise. Particularly if you are politically inclined, I highly recommend this book.
To get excited for September 23, check out Bezmozgis’ New Yorker piece about this book, “The Novel in Real Time.”